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Why Movember isn't all it's cracked up to be

Movember is divisive, gender normative, racist and ineffective against some very real health issues.

Ah, autumn days. That time of year defined by jewelled grass, silky chestnut shells, and men across the nation eyeing their top lips like adolescents in a month-long event of back-slapping, high-fiving and Instagram-liking. We are now in the thick of Movember season. The last few weeks have seen our Facebook newsfeeds littered with selfies, as the otherwise banal and natural (yet for the female amongst us: totally unacceptable) process of hair growth is eagerly tracked with tongue-in-cheek insults pertaining to the thinness, style or “gingerness” of the emerging whiskers. Precious few of the posts, or the resulting comments, focus on men's health issues, and virtually none recognise the pernicious gendered and racial connotations carried by the practice.

For the most part, sponsored activities (day-long silences, sponge-throwing, public waxing) depend on the extreme, the outrageous, the ridiculous. Friends and family are, apparently, only willing to part with money to witness something odd, humorous or downright unpleasant. So what message does Movember convey to those whose moustaches are more-or-less permanent features? With large numbers of minority-ethnic men—for instance Kurds, Indians, Mexicans—sporting moustaches as a cultural or religious signifier, Movember reinforces the “othering” of “foreigners” by the generally clean-shaven, white majority. Imagine a charity event that required its participants to wear dreadlocks or a sari for one month to raise funds—it would rightly be seen as unforgivably racist. What is the difference here? We are not simply considering an arbitrary configuration of facial hair, but one that had particular, imperial connotation to British men of our grandfathers' generation and currently has a separate cultural valence for men from certain ethnic groups. Moustaches, whether or not “mo-bros” mean theirs to be, are loaded with symbolism. We often wonder how our fathers (both life-long moustached men) must feel each November, when their colleagues' faces temporarily resemble theirs, and are summarily met with giggles and sponsor-money. No doubt they draw the obvious conclusion, that dovetails with many other experiences of life as an immigrant: there are different rules for white faces.

Further, the inclusivity of Movember deserves examination. For one, only men (and even then, only some men) can grow a moustache. The decision to focus on the moustache to raise awareness of men's health issues might seem like an apposite one (though there's no obvious relationship between moustaches and cancers), but it reinforces the regressive idea that masculinity is about body chemistry rather than gender identity, and marginalises groups of men who may struggle to grow facial hair, such as trans-men. Ironically, Movember also excludes the very men it is supposed to uplift; many men who have undergone radiotherapy or surgery to treat testicular cancer are rendered “hypogonadal” and are therefore unable to grow facial hair.

In solidarity with Movember, some women have also relaxed normative shaving-etiquette during “No Shave November.” Instead of being met with the same teasing words of encouragement, many have been subject to ferocious abuse across social media, reflective of the intolerability of women's body hair, as opposed to the acceptability of a range of—albeit sometimes humorously viewed—male facial hair-styles. From this we learn that men's facial hair (as with the appearance of men more generally) is neither here nor there, and is therefore fair game for a bit of charitable fun, while female breaches of prescribed gender norms are quickly policed, and may result in disgust, ostracisation, and threats. Movember is a reminder that women should think carefully before subverting their sexually objectified bodies to join in with boy's games, something female athletes know only too well.

As the month of sacrificial hirsutism draws to a close, mo-bros may convene at their nearest “gala party”. These events showcase the worst of what the Movember “movement” is really about: white young men ridiculing minorities, and playing up to the lad culture within which the charitable practice has become embedded. Across nine cities in the UK, participants dress up in costumes that mock and trivialise racial minorities (“turbanator” Indians, fez-topped Arabs with day-hire camels, Mexicans in sombreros and bandoliers) and the LGBT community (parodies of the Village People), celebrate war and imperialism (gun-toting cowboys, colonial generals in pith helmets, and cavalrymen in slouch hats), and emulate racist fictional characters and sexist stereotypes (such as 'Dictator' Aladeen with a harem of female bodyguards, Hulk Hogan lookalikes, hard-hatted builders). Meanwhile, female attendees take on the uniforms that now seem fit for any occasion, yet really for none at all: Playboy bunnies, air-hostesses, nurses, cheerleaders. Unsurprisingly again, the woman deemed best-looking or best-dressed picks up the title of “Miss Movember”. Set against this damaging carnival of normativity, an official Movember t-shirt slogan “Moustaches Against Establishment” seems particularly empty and hypocritical. This culture is summarised in the language of the website, which is itself a lesson in how to reinforce traditional conceptions of masculinity (witness: 'fighting the good fight', 'moustache army', 'flying the flag'), once again precluding the ostensible aim of breaking down the norms that force men to adopt pre-packaged roles which discourage the discussion and acceptance of serious illness.

Some may respond that Movember is surely “just a bit of fun, in aid of a good cause”. But, to answer to the second part of this specious defence, how efficacious is the campaign itself?  The idea is that men, on the whole, visit their doctor less frequently, are more cagey about discussing health issues with friends and family, and lead less healthy lifestyles. Undoubtedly, these factors combine to contribute to a shorter male life expectancy, which is thought to be in large part due to higher rates of heart and vascular disease (interestingly, not the sex-specific diseases that Movember targets). If there is to be a male-focused health campaign, shouldn't it be centred on tackling the root causes of this gender disparity? Shouldn't the campaign instead be focused on deconstructing the strict gender norms that keep so many men suffering silently? Shouldn't it be built around teaching men to self-examine for lumps, challenging taboos surrounding psychiatric illness, and encouraging men to minimise drinking, smoking and red meat consumption, all of which have been associated with increased risk of heart disease and cancer? It would seem that Movember isn't really about “changing the face of men's health”, so much as fetishising facial hair for the entertainment of young men. According to Movember’s own data, only 43% of those who take part in the campaign reported increased awareness and education regarding the health risks they face. It pays to ask what the other 57% of men thought they were doing.

One of the Movember mantras is: “Real men, growing real moustaches, talking about real issues”. The slogan is as misguided as its campaign: Movember is divisive and gender normative, not least because it centres on the notion that there is such a thing as a “real” man; it is racist, inasmuch as it steamrollers over the cultural significance of the moustache (and thereby ignores what the campaign means for the men who really have moustaches); and it is non-optimal, because it does not tackle—in fact it only compounds—the very real health issues that hurt the men we love. 

Neil Singh is a UK doctor developing health initiatives for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Arianne Shahvisi is an assistant professor of philosophy at the American University of Beirut.
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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.