Friday, May 29, 2015

Bald and Badass

I grew up the daughter of a bald man. The funny thing is, I didn’t realize he was bald until one of my elementary schoolmates pointed it out. To me, he was just “Dad.” His hair was irrelevant.

My father started losing his hair when he was very young. I’ve seen pictures of him in his twenties and, even back then, the balding was well underway. But he never seemed to mind. In fact, I cannot recall him ever griping about his baldness. What remained of his hair he kept tightly clipped. He wasn’t one for drastic measures. No ridiculous comb-over, no magic potions. As a Navy captain, he had more important things on his mind.

Baldness is a big issue among men, probably because about sixty percent of them will lose their hair. You’d think, over time, they'd simply accept it and move on. But telling a man to disregard his baldness is like telling a woman to ignore the aging process. Impossible. We are culturally programmed to lose sleep over such issues.

So let’s take a moment to explore the realm of androgenetic alopecia, aka, male pattern baldness.

Aside from certain medical conditions, if you’re losing your hair, you probably have your genes and hormones to blame. And unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot you can do about either one. You are what you are and your genotype was predetermined before you ever shot from the womb.

As for the hormones, here’s how they work. Male pattern baldness (MPB) occurs in men who have a predisposed sensitivity to the hormone, dihydrotestosterone (DHT). I’m sure you recognize the “-testosterone” base of that term. That’s because it’s a form of male sex hormone. In men with sensitivity, the DHT acts like a toxin on the hair follicles, starving them of nutrients, causing them to shrink, and eventually shutting down the hair’s growth phase. And the areas most affected? Those on the top and sides of the head, resulting in the characteristic “horseshoe” pattern of MPB.

So what’s a guy to do? There are probably as many home remedies as there are bald heads on the planet. Most of them involve some sort of herbal concoction you massage on your gourd. There’s licorice root, aloe vera, onion juice, and fenugreek (whatever the hell that is). If you have a sweet tooth, you can use honey, yogurt, banana, or cinnamon powder. Or, if you’re a manly man, you can choose castor oil, black pepper, camphor, or snake gourd. I’m pretty sure the results will be the same…

But instead of reaching for a remedy, perhaps you should consider the razor. It turns out, a shaved head says a lot about the man underneath.

First, let’s take a peek at a few of the cultural manifestations of shaved heads. There are many situations associated with head shaving – not all of them good. But I like to accentuate the positive, so we’ll breeze past the contexts of prison internment, lice infestation, and Nazi punishment, and instead, focus on the finer aspects of baldness.

In many cultures, shaving the head is a rite of passage, especially when it comes to religion. Buddhist monks prepare for the priesthood by having their heads shaved, a symbolic commitment to the Holy Life. Hare Krishna do the same as a way of renouncing materialism, although they may leave a tiny tuft on the back to distinguish themselves from their Buddhist brothers.

Many branches of the military require shearing of recruits and even the ancient Romans sported bald heads, although they tended to pluck instead of shave. (Ouch!)

But the best news for bald men comes from a recent study out of the University of Pennsylvania. The folks at the Wharton School experimented on people’s perception of the shaved head, and the overwhelming response was that men with shaved heads were perceived as stronger, taller, more confident, more masculine and, finally, more dominant than their hairy counterparts.

So if you’re losing your hair, try embracing your baldness. It certainly worked for my father. Regardless of his baldness (or perhaps because of it), he was a singular badass.

Here's a nice article on the subject...

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Friday, May 22, 2015

A Meditation on Decapitation

As a natural extension of last week’s piece on circumcision, I’ve found myself thinking about decapitation. During my years as a medic, I never had the opportunity to see a decapitation, although I glimpsed gory photos taken by comrades in the field: horrific wrecks in which the car and driver were transformed into convertibles; the motorcyclist who inadvertently raced his cycle beneath the hidden guide wire. There are many dangerous ways to lose your head.

Thoughts of decapitation get the philosophical juices flowing. Does the person feel pain? Is he aware of his surroundings? I’ve often wondered what the victim experiences once the head has been separated from the body. Perhaps nothing. But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine for a moment what it feels like to be beheaded.

First, let’s tackle the pain factor. Although there are over three million pain receptors throughout the human body, there are none within the brain. Thus, the brain itself cannot feel pain, which is why surgeons are able to perform brain surgery on conscious patients. But that doesn’t mean a decapitation isn’t painful, since there are plenty of pain receptors in the neck (ask anyone who’s ever suffered whiplash). So the decapitation would certainly elicit a painful response.

But would the person be aware of the pain? That’s where consciousness comes in.

At its most basic, consciousness is defined as the state of being aware of one’s surroundings. Let’s not digress into the philosophical theories of consciousness, for philosophy is like a wormhole: who knows where we’ll end up. Let’s stick to physiology.

There are several conditions that cause unconsciousness: low blood sugar, psychological stress, and abnormal heart rhythms. But if we’re talking about decapitation, we’re strictly concerned with blood loss, for if the head is detached from the body, blood flow is no longer an option.

Although the brain can survive for up to six minutes after the heart stops beating, consciousness is another story. Since the brain cannot store oxygen, rapid blood loss means unconsciousness occurs in seconds. That’s why you feel lightheaded if you stand up too quickly. The brain picks up on that drop in blood pressure and, as a result, you get dizzy.

So maybe decapitation causes such an immediate loss of blood that unconsciousness is instantaneous. Then again, maybe not.

I’m hardly the first to wonder about the state of mind of the decapitated. The scientific literature is dotted with anecdotal evidence of eyewitness accounts describing facial grimacing, blinking eyes, moving lips, or a wandering gaze. Whether these are conscious movements or simply remnant neuromuscular twitching, we’ll never know. But let’s review the scant evidence, just for argument’s sake.

Back when the French were still enamored of the guillotine, there was a natural curiosity about the experience of the beheaded. It is said that many of those sentenced to death were asked to blink, if they were able, once the guillotine had performed its duty, and there are supposedly reports that some did just that, for up to 30 seconds.

The most famous case is that of the criminal, Languille, who was sentenced to the guillotine for murder. A Dr. Beaurieux observed Languille’s facial expressions immediately following his beheading, which the doctor then recorded in Archives d’Anthropologie Criminelle. They included the blinking of eyes and the movement of lips, which lasted for several seconds. When Languille’s face relaxed, Beaurieux yelled his name and the eyelids slowly rose. Languille focused his gaze on the good doctor before his eyes slid closed again. Beaurieux repeated the exercise and was rewarded with one final, purposeful stare before the eyes glazed over and Languille was declared dead.  

Now that beheading has gone the way of the firing squad, we may never know if the decapitated are aware. Of the few beheadings that still take place – namely the barbaric displays by terrorists – we can’t help but wonder about the victims.

Certainly they feel the pain of the blade, for the methods employed are hardly humane. But once the head is severed, are the victims still aware? Do they experience a fleeting sense of the barbarian standing over them?

God, I hope not.

One of my favorite paintings, that hangs in London's National Gallery - The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, by Delaroche.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Circumcision Decision

Back when I was a new paramedic, I worked at a Level 1 trauma center. As an inexperienced medic, I was relegated to the most menial of tasks: drawing blood, monitoring vital signs, and patrolling bodily fluids. But my least favorite chore was catheterizing patients.

After a few trial runs, however, I became quite proficient. I could cath a patient in the blink of an eye. One evening, a frail, elderly man wandered into our ER, complaining of urinary discomfort. As the catheter specialist, I was summoned. I prepped my equipment, explained the procedure, and then discreetly exposed his genitalia. And as I took hold of his member, I paused for a moment of awe. For the first time, I found myself face to face with an uncircumcised penis.

I steadied my poker face as I recalculated my strategy. There was a lot more skin than I was used to, and it took me a few seconds of floundering before my cath found its mark. As I advanced the tubing (imagine stuffing a straw through a sausage), I found myself mesmerized by his unusual appendage.

Little did I know, the uncircumcised are hardly unique. Like most things, it all comes down to culture.

Male circumcision goes back thousands of years. Historians still debate its origins, but most agree it probably had its roots in rituals surrounding purification. Since many cultures view sexuality as sinful, removing the foreskin may have served to rein in a man’s sexual proclivities.

The most ancient examples come from Egypt, where historical accounts dating to over five thousand years ago describe the ritual. The procedure is also recorded in bas relief and found in evidence on mummified remains.

Although Jews adopted the practice early on, the Romans were rather fond of their foreskin, and passed laws to protect their precious prepuces.

In many cultures, there is great ceremony surrounding circumcision. The Jewish Bris (technically called a “Bris Mila,” meaning “covenant of circumcision”) is symbolic of God’s promise that the Jewish people will live on; thus its focus on that imperative male organ. It is traditionally performed by a mohel, someone specially trained in wielding a knife. Once the baby has been snipped, the guests are free to gorge themselves on the Seudat Mitzvah (aka, religious feast).

But circumcision is hardly restricted to the Jews. It is found all over the globe in varying frequencies; about one-third of all males worldwide. In the US, circumcision first became a medicalized practice around 1870 and, as hospital births became the norm, it became part and parcel to the medicalization of birthing, as well as a symbol of status.

In America, the rate stands around sixty percent, with slight variations based on race and ethnicity. In the UK, about half of all male Londoners are circumcised, and the same holds true for Canada. In the Land Down Under, sixty-nine percent of Aussie-born males are circumcised, yet in nearby New Zealand, it’s only around forty percent. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the overall rate is around sixty-two percent, and many circumcisions are performed later in life. The same goes for the Philippines, where over half of those circumcised are put under the knife in their teens.

But circumcision is falling out of favor, at least here in America, despite the fact that it affords certain health benefits. According to the American Association of Pediatrics, a circumcised penis is less prone to STDs such as herpes, HPV, and syphilis; there’s a markedly lower risk of acquiring HIV; and it reduces the incidence of urinary tract infections and certain rare forms of cancer. Most of this comes down to hygiene. The less skin there is, the easier it is to keep clean. So if you sport foreskin, be sure to scrub up. And regardless of your foreskin status, be sure to always glove up!

 The decision to circumcise is not only based on medicine, it is also highly social. Like many aspects of culture – what you eat, what you wear, the traditions you follow – circumcision has much to do with the group to which you belong. If the majority of men around you are circumcised, chances are you will be too.

As for which is more attractive, it really comes down to personal preference. And just as we discussed in last week’s post, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Eye of the Beholder

I want you to take a moment and imagine a beautiful human. Since this blog is read around the world, I’m betting the range of faces that come to mind is staggering. That’s because beauty can be an elusive concept, and what constitutes it varies from place to place. It really comes down to culture.

Last week’s Model Behavior got me thinking about the concept of beauty and I found myself flashing back to my childhood. I grew up reading National Geographic, flipping through its glossy pages, entranced by the exotic people staring back at me from those beautiful photographs. It taught me early on that humans come in a wide range of colors, practice radically different customs, and do some amazing things with their bodies.

But my adolescent brain was confounded. Why would people poke giant holes in their earlobes, chisel scars across their flesh, or insert pins in the least likely places? (My first glance at a penis pin nearly knocked me out of my chair!) Fortunately, as I matured and accumulated a few degrees in anthropology, I came to appreciate the fact that humans manipulate their bodies for various reasons, sometimes  religious or symbolic, but mainly in their quest for beauty.

Take those scars, for example. In the US, we go to great lengths to minimize, erase, or conceal our scars. Yet if we take a quick trip across the globe, scars take on a whole new meaning. Among the Karo of Ethiopia, men sport scars to represent their warfare prowess. Karo women, on the other hand, do it merely for esthetics. These intricate etchings are considered alluring and represent a woman’s sensuality. And Ethiopians are not alone, for scarification is found in many parts of the world, from the dusty Australian Outback to the lush island of New Guinea. The custom has even found its way into the U.S. for, it seems, tattoos are now only for the faint of heart . For the more daring among us, the needle has been supplanted by the blade.

Other forms of superficial beautification include tattoos and piercings, widespread customs believed to enhance the appearance of their hosts. Among the Maori of New Zealand, facial tattoos, known as “moko,” not only represent tribal affiliation (and scare the bejesus out of their foes), but emphasize a woman’s desirability. Like tattoos, piercings come in all shapes and sizes and can be placed just about anywhere on the body. Extreme piercings, such as ear spools, have been worn for over five thousand years, from China to Africa to the Americas, as status symbols. The women of Borneo have taken it one step further. By adorning their ears with weights, they stretch their lobes to unimaginable lengths.

And they're hardly alone, for ear stretching has shown up in some surprising places, from Egypt's King Tutankhamen to Otzi, the five-thousand-year-old frozen Alpine mummy. Even the statues of Easter Island sport elongated earlobes.

Earlobes aren’t the only body part that is elongated for the sake of beauty. Don’t get excited, boys, I’m referring to neck rings. Probably the best known practitioners are among the Kayan of Northern Thailand. Known affectionately as the “giraffe” tribe, Kayan women strive for beauty one ring at a time. The process begins around the age of five and continues into adulthood. Length is achieved not by stretching the neck but by flattening the collarbones, making the neck appear longer than it actually is. Like many forms of beauty, it is but an illusion.

Evolutionary psychologists have been arguing about the basis of beauty for decades. The universalists concede that culture plays a role in the perception of beauty, but they argue there are certain underlying fundamentals, such as facial symmetry, a clear complexion, and large eyes. In the opposite corner stand the relativists, who believe beauty, like other aspects of humanity, is a culture-bound phenomenon. How else to explain the bizarre expressions seen around the globe?

To me, it’s something deeper. Sure, it helps if both sides of your face match, and big eyes and clear skin are always a plus. But there are some who lack all of these attributes, yet are still astoundingly beautiful. I guess it comes down to what’s inside.

Here's a fascinating article on the cultural concept of beauty.

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Friday, May 1, 2015

Model Behavior

This may sound preposterous, but long before I became an archaeologist and, before that, a firefighter, I dreamt of being a model. Like many teens, I devoured the fashion magazines – Vogue and Elle were my bibles. But for me, it wasn’t so much the fashion, it was more the amazing photographs of those beautifully svelte women. 

Their body proportions were astounding: they were tall, lithe, and, most importantly, incredibly thin. Everything a young girl aspired to be. So as I prepared for high school, I dieted like a fiend, losing the subtle layer of baby fat I had been toting since childhood, transforming myself into a willowy wisp of an adolescent. I was ready.

Despite sprouting to a meager five feet seven inches, I was signed by a top local agency and finally got a taste of my dream profession. But after several shoots and shows, I soon discovered that life as a model fell short of my visions of grandeur. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing like the thrill of the catwalk and the money was ridiculous, considering what little effort went in to strutting around in designer wear. It’s just that it lacked purpose. Fortunately, college led me to paramedic school, which led me straight into the fire service. The only problem was, it required another bodily transformation.

The thin frame I acquired for modeling was ill-equipped for the rigors of firefighting, so I set to work, running, lifting, and pumping my way to a muscled physique. And it’s a good thing I did. It turns out maintaining the body of a model, in all its emaciated splendor, is anything but glamourous.

Let’s start with what a healthy body looks like. The average woman should be composed of about twenty-two percent body fat. That’s because fat plays a fundamental role in the body’s metabolism. It provides a backup energy source when carbohydrates are scarce, it absorbs vital nutrients, such as vitamins A, D, E, and K; and it helps maintain proper body temperature. So you can imagine what happens to an individual who lacks the necessary fat stores. And the situation is only compounded by the extreme dieting most models undertake in order to maintain their fat-free physiques.

The most serious culprits are those strutting the catwalk. Let’s face it, clothes look best on tall, thin frames. That’s why the average size on the runway runs between 0 and 2 – hardly your typical body. So for a model to compete, she must maintain a frame that fits the bill.

Those skeletal silhouettes are achieved through extreme measures, from drugs such as amphetamines, to the use of colonics and juice diets, to the tried-and-true method of simple starvation. And the older the model, the harder it is to keep the weight off. That’s one reason the industry preys on youth – prepubescents come in smaller, lighter packages.

But this industry not only harms the models, it wreaks havoc on the psyches of girls everywhere. The result? An epidemic of eating disorders, driven by the marketing of unrealistic body types.

Eating disorders affect around seventy million people worldwide – twenty-four million of those in the US, alone (and this statistic is from 2002!). Ninety percent of women with eating disorders are between the ages of twelve and twenty-five and, in a ghoulish survey, half the women questioned said they would rather be hit by a truck than be fat. Come on!!

Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents, which is frightening, considering that same anorexic is about twelve times more likely to die an early death. In fact, about twenty percent of people suffering from anorexia will die prematurely due to complications that accompany this syndrome; typically, cardiac abnormalities or suicide. And the body issues that drive this disorder are creeping into an ever-younger age group. According to a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, eighty-one percent of ten year olds claimed they were afraid of becoming fat and over half the nine and ten year olds surveyed said they felt better about themselves when they were dieting. Time Magazine reported that eighty percent of all children have been on a diet by the time they reach the fourth grade!

Body image is a complicated issue, driven by many factors, most notably the media. Fortunately, the fashion industry is taking note. The Council of Fashion Designers of America has developed guidelines to address the issue of underweight (and underage) models on the catwalk. So perhaps there’s hope.

I guess I was lucky. By trading couture for a bunker coat, I avoided the mania of modeling and was rewarded with a fulfilling career as a firefighter. And now that I’m a bioarchaeologist, my build is truly irrelevant. The skeletons I work on couldn't care less what size I am.

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