Friday, February 23, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #134: The History of Bras, Part 1

A few days ago I was watching something set in the Roaring Twenties and, of course, there were all these women walking around in flapper dresses. Naturally, my first thought was, I am way too busty for a flapper dress, but my second thought was, None of these women seem to be wearing bras. I wonder if they had bras back then.

My great-grandmother is long dead, which is a shame, because she wouldn’t have hesitated to regale me with stories of her old-fashioned undergarments and all the most exciting times she got to take them off, which is exactly why I wasn't allowed to sit in Grandma's room unsupervised when I was a kid. So, I had to turn to the Internet instead.

I’d remembered hearing or reading somewhere that, back in the day, women relied on their corsets to both squeeze the life out of them and support their breasts. The earliest bras date back to the Minoan civilization of ancient Greece, where, about 3,000 years ago, female athletes were said to compete whilst wearing garments similar to the modern bikini. Later, Greek women wore breast bands called apodesmos, which consisted of a strap of wool or linen that was wrapped around the breasts and tied at the back. Roman women adopted a similar garment, seen here depicted on a fresco at Pompeii:

However, these garments didn't always cover or hide the breasts; sometimes the breasts were left exposed, with the breast-band supporting and accentuating them from underneath, as seen in this statue of the Snake Goddess:

In the Middle Ages in Europe, women did wear garments to support the breasts. These linens, like the 600-year-old underclothes discovered during renovations of an Austrian castle in 2012, looked exactly like the wire-free bras women wear today, right down to the decorative lace. Prior to the discovery of these bras, it was thought that women did not wear bras in Europe during the Middle Ages, but instead relied on the structure of their gowns to provide support. By the Renaissance, corsets had become popular among upper class European women, and around the same time in East Asia, Chinese and Vietnamese women began wearing a dudou (Chinese) or yếm (Vietnamese), a square or diamond-shaped silk bodice worn in the manner of a halter-top.

A child-sized dudou on display at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.
Image by Michelle Pemberton from Wikimedia Commons
The corset saw a temporary decline in popularity during the years of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, due to its association with the aristocracy, but enjoyed resurgence during the Victorian Era, when tightlacing became a popular way to emphasize the female form. By the 20th century, however, women’s increased interest in physical activity led to the development of more modern, supportive bra-like undergarments, and the production of shorter, more girdle-like corsets that served to control that age-old nemesis, tummy fat. The late Victorian period saw the emergency of the Clothing Reform Movement, driven by concerned health professionals and early feminists. Organizations such as the Reform Dress Association, the Rational Dress Society, and the National Dress Reform Association fought for women’s rights to breathe and move normally. As more women became interested in sports, especially bicycling, feminists like Elizabeth Stuart Phelps encouraged women to “Burn up the corsets!...Make a bonfire of the cruel steels that have lorded it over your thorax and abdomens for so many years and heave a sigh of relief, for your emancipation I assure you, from this moment has begun.”

Who invented the modern bra? That’s up for debate. Multiple bras were patented throughout the 19th century, although the credit for the first modern bra patent often goes to Mary Phelps Jacob, who dissatisfied with the interaction of her whalebone corset and her large breasts, fashioned a bra from two silk handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon. 

 Jacob's bra, as pictured in her patent application.

When other women expressed interest in the bra and one offered Jacobs a dollar for the garment, she decided to try selling them, but had little success. Eventually, Jacob would sell her patent for the design to Warners Brothers Corset Company for the equivalent of $21,000. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #133: Can Knitting Treat PTSD?

Image by user Johntex from Wikimedia Commons
I’ve really been getting into crochet lately, which is an ideal hobby to indulge in when one has cats. My mother taught me how to crochet years ago, but I hadn’t done it in quite some time before I decided to make Jim a tentacle scarf for Christmas. Making the scarf rekindled my interest in the hobby, which gives me something productive to do with my hands while Jim and I are watching TV, and is a lot less frustrating than coloring extremely intricate pictures in adult coloring books.

What am I supposed to do with this, Dr. Coloring Book???
Indeed, journalist Temma Ehrenfeld, writing in Psychology Today, speculates that the post-modern urge to constantly play with our phones stems, not from a deep moral failure as my last boyfriend would have you believe, but from a desire to make or do something with our hands. Researchers have found that knitting (and I’m going to lump in crochet with that, which is not the same as knitting, BECAUSE IT’S BETTER), like yoga and tai chi, can elicit a meditative state of mindfulness. The repetitive motions involved in knitting and crocheting are physiologically soothing, slowing the heart rate and breathing, but the activity itself is complicated enough to distract the brain from the intrusive thoughts that often come with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder; knitting and crocheting can even relieve chronic pain, because it distracts the brain from processing pain signals.

Image by user flora from Wikimedia Commons
That’s according to Betsan Corkhill, whose research with Cardiff University in the UK found that, the more time people spend knitting, the happier they are. Corkhill surveyed 3,500 knitters for a paper published in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy; 81 percent of those surveyed reported feeling happier during or after a knitting session, while 54 percent of respondents suffering clinical depression said that knitting made them feel “happy or very happy.”

Occupational therapist Victoria Schindler tells CNN that knitting’s repetitive motions quiet the parasympathetic nervous system, to quell the fight-or-flight response that’s out-of-control in so many patients suffering from anxiety and PTSD. Knitting may further stimulate the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, accounting for the feelings of happiness knitters reported to Corkhill.

Of course, it’s not just the knitting or crocheting itself that makes us happy. The hobby brings with it a host of other mood-boosting activities, such as choosing pretty yarns, attending knitting circles (or, as I like to call them, stitch-and-bitches), producing finished products, gifting or donating knitted items, and receiving praise for one’s skill. In addition, knitting, crocheting, and other crafty hobbies boosts your feelings of self-efficacy, or your perception of how capable you are in the face of challenges and disappointments. Knowing that you can crochet your boyfriend an awesome tentacle scarf will leave you feeling more confident in your ability to nail that big job interview, or at least that’s the idea, but I’m still awful at job interviews so check and mate, science!

Perhaps the most interesting part of all this is that it’s not a new idea. In the aftermath of World War I, shell-shocked soldiers lay in hospital wards, knitting their cares away as they contributed to the war effort. Of course, that may have had more to do with the fact literally everyone was knitting stuff for the soldiers in the trenches than with any attempt to treat combat-related neurosis, but whatevs, I'm taking it.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

I Want to Have a Bear Complaint

Image by Malene Thyssen from Wikimedia Commons
A friend of mine recently moved to Alaska, and I am jealous. I would love to move to Alaska. It would be cold, dark, miserable, snowy, and full of embittered, unmarriageable alcoholics – just the way I like it.

My friend, Beth, recently posted on Facebook a picture of her local Alaskan newspaper’s crime report. Apparently, during the third week in January, her local police department investigated zero bear complaints. She was delighted that “bear complaints” are a standing category in this report. Further conversation revealed that she is looking forward to someday lodging a bear complaint of her very own.

Now, let me tell you that all my life, I’ve wanted to see a bear. Growing up in West Virginia, it seemed like everyone I knew had a bear story. Chuck, my mother’s boyfriend when I was a teenager, told a story about getting between a mother and her cubs which, surprisingly, didn’t end with him getting eaten, which was unfortunate because him getting eaten would have made the world a better place. Herb, the boyfriend before Chuck, told a story about sleeping on the front porch on a hot summer night and waking up to one of his hunting dogs licking his face. But when he went to shove the dog away, he was surprised to discover that it was not a dog, but a black bear.

Image by Diginatur from Wikimedia Commons

“That’s why you should always wash your face before you go to bed,” said my mother, who liked to tell me that ferrets would eat my lips in the night if I didn’t wash my face before bed. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I’ve been not washing my face before bed for at least fifteen years, and nothing has eaten my face or lips yet. Technically, that bear didn’t even eat Herb’s face, it just licked it a little bit. Also, I feel like if there’s a lesson to be taken from Herb’s story, it’s “don’t sleep on the front porch,” not “wash your face to keep bears from eating it in your sleep.”

But I digress. In spite of the fact that everyone around me seems to have seen, shot at, run from, been licked by, eaten, or married a bear, I have never seen a bear. I mean, I’ve seen bears in the zoo, but that doesn’t count. For all I know, those aren’t even real bears. They’re doing all kinds of things with technology these days.

I want to see a bear, but I guess they’re more elusive than I’d been led to believe. Another friend of mine hiked the whole Appalachian Trail and only saw one bear, and that one was in Maine. Imagine walking in the woods for six months  straight and only seeing one bear.

My mother often took me camping on my grandparents' land when I was a girl, and on these trips, I kept my eyes peeled for bear. My mother encouraged this by saying things like, "Guy Phillips saw a bear down here yesterday," or, "See that path? That was definitely made by a bear." Eventually I realized that bear didn't live on my grandparents' land, the outskirts of which was relatively well-settled.

Jim and I recently visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where I had hoped to finally see a bear. I insisted that we go to Balsam Mountain Campground, because online reviewers had posted photos of bear wondering amongst the campsites. I want to see a bear, but I don't want to work for it.

I made Jim go on a hike with me, ostensibly to enjoy the outdoors, but I wouldn't have minded if we'd seen a bear. I said as much to Jim: "I hope we see a bear."

"I hope we don't see a bear," Jim replied.

Spoiler alert: We didn't see a bear. I was disappointed. Jim was disappointed, too, but for different reasons – he hates camping.

Monday, February 5, 2018

My DIY Treadmill Desk Is Working Out, More-or-Less

Several weeks ago, I put together a DIY treadmill desk. I used two bungee cords and a leftover shelf I had lying around from a wooden shelving unit that I bought at K-Mart, when there was still a K-Mart, and put up in my bedroom and, later, my kitchen.

Yes, I know that there shouldn’t normally be leftover pieces lying around when you finish putting something together, but knowing that doesn’t change the facts of this situation, which is that there’s a leftover shelf. I actually bought two short shelving units and combined them into one tall monster of a shelving unit, so the extra shelf is just the bottom shelf of the top half. I probably should have left it on there so that I could more securely nail the two units together, but whatever, it’s fine. I stuck the extra shelf in the back of my closet because I knew I’d find a use for it someday, and what do you know, I did.

The structure of the shelf is perfect because I didn’t have to screw any giant hooks or eyes into it in order to have somewhere to attach the bungee cords, although I could have because I’m pretty sure I have some of those lying around, too, from when I was going to put a clothesline up in the garage but then I never did. Because the shelf isn’t really high enough to allow me to type or write longhand comfortably, I needed something to prop up my laptop and also to write on. After all these years, I’m proud to say that buying those middle school yearbooks has paid off.

Now I can kill two birds with one stone by walking on the treadmill while I work on stuff. I have to admit that I don’t actually get that much work done at the treadmill desk, but it is useful for petting cats while I work out.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #132: Hobbits Were Real, Sort Of

I got the idea to write this post because I was talking to Jim a couple of weeks ago and he didn’t believe me that hobbits were real. I tried to prove to him that hobbits were real by googling Homo floresiensis, but he didn’t seem that interested.

H. floresiensis was a species of mini-hominids that lived on the Indonesian island of Flores from about 190,000 to 50,000 years ago. The Tolkien Estate would prefer that we not call them hobbits.

Which is fair, since they probably looked like this.
Image from Wikimedia Commons by Cicero Moraes et alii
In 2003, the remains of a female individual, who would have been about 3’7” or 1.1 meters tall, were discovered in a limestone cave known as Liang Bua. The remains were discovered by a group of Australian and Indonesian scientists who were looking for evidence of Homo sapiens’ migration from Asia to Australia. Instead, they discovered what is now widely believed to be a whole new species of human.

The cave in question.
Image from Wikimedia Commons by user Rosino
The discovery of this almost-complete skeleton was shortly followed by the discovery of the remains of seven other individuals, as well as the discovery of a number of small, primitive stone implements. The scientists also uncovered the bones of an extinct elephant, Stegodon florensis insularis, a species descended from the full-sized S. florensis florensis which experienced island dwarfing, a phenomenon in which a large species confined to an island or other isolated area evolves to a smaller size over time.

So, were these tiny humans originally regular-sized humans who shrank over generations of life on Flores? Perhaps; the Wikipedia page on insular dwarfism lists Flores Man as an example of the phenomenon in primates, putting it in such illustrious company as the Nosy Hara dwarf lemur (named after an island called Nosy Hara, not after a guy called Hara who couldn’t mind his own business) and the early inhabitants of the island nation of Palau, who may or may not have been unusually small members of the species Homo sapiens, depending on who you ask.

It’s possible that H. floresiensis is not a discrete species at all, but is instead a smaller version of Homo sapiens. Some scientists point to the modern-day existence of a light-skinned pygmy people in the Flores village of Rampasasa as proof that the specimens labeled H. floresiensis could in fact be early examples of this same modern tribe. Others argue that the small individuals found in the cave are not early examples of modern pygmy peoples, but a separate species. H. floresiensis is a full foot smaller than the average height of most modern pygmy peoples, and possesses other physical features that are very different from those of modern humans. The structure of the arms, shoulders, teeth, and especially the wrists are such that scientists think this hominid was more closely related to great apes and early hominids, like Australopithecus, than to modern humans or even earlier human species like Homo neanderthalensis or Homo erectus. Some scientists believe that H. floresiensis evolved from the same hominid ancestor as Homo habilis, making it an older species than Homo erectus; if this theory was correct, it would mean that Homo erectus was not the first human species to leave Africa.

However, others believe that H. floresiensis was descended from Homo erectus. Still others believe that the unfortunate individuals found in the cave were normal, garden-variety Homo sapiens who had the misfortune to live a long time ago and suffer from debilitating illnesses like Down’s syndrome, microcephaly, Laron syndrome, or endemic cretinism, a condition in which one is born without a thyroid. Researchers including Dean Falk argue that, despite having a brain the size of an orange, H. floresiensis possessed cognitive powers sufficient to make and use the stone tools found in the cave (which are technologically on par with the more sophisticated tools made by Homo sapiens of the Upper Paleolithic or Late Stone Age), to use fire, and to hunt cooperatively to bring down admittedly small elephants, although I suppose even a cow-sized elephant would be as big as an elephant-sized elephant if you’re three-and-a-half feet tall. Scientists attempted to extract a DNA sample from the teeth of one of the specimens in 2006, which would have presumably settled the debate and revealed the nature of the specimens, but the attempt failed, so the debate rages on.