Friday, November 24, 2006

A feast for the senseless?

YESTERDAY, WHILE researching another project, I came across an interesting article about body image and the unfortunate effects of "fat-ism" on women today. (Fittingly enough, this took place right after I'd downed about nine pounds of turkey and stuffing, slathered with the waist-bloating, aorta-clogging drippings that congeal at the bottom of the pan.) The author, Judy Lightstone, clearly aims her piece at young women at risk for eating disorders—a very large group indeed, if the advocacy groups can be believed. Working from the premise that the average woman suffers from low self-esteem (the result of vesting too much of her ego in her appearance), she attempts to empower her readers, making them feel better about life and their overall place in it. "Today in America you can be whatever you want to be—any dream can be accomplished as long as you pursue it," she effuses. "We live in the land of opportunity, rich with culture and diversity, the land of the free!" I know what the author is trying to do here, and one wants to admire her pluck. She believes that in cheerleading for a worthy cause, she gives people hope. Alas, I just don't think it's helpful. Because ultimately Lightstone's readers—if they unreservedly embrace her spiel—are set for a major crash when they learn that she lied to them. They can't "be whatever" they want to be. For all the logical and empirical reasons set forth in great detail in my book and this blog.

Later in the article, Lightstone tries to make her readers more comfortable with their God-given shapes, and therefore less inclined to buy into society's cookie-cutter image of female beauty. Interestingly enough, her main rhetorical strategy here is to contend that dieting, for most of us, is a doomed enterprise anyway, since we're going against biological programming: "It is critical to remember that many aspects of your body cannot be changed.... 25% to 70% of your body is determined by your genes." Is that so? Well then, wouldn't it stand to reason that a person's genetic predispositions have at least some bearing on what he or she can "be"? After all, if the author is saying that your genes may well prevent you from being model-slim no matter what you try, then might not your genes also prevent you from doing other things? Heck, if I really wanted to go for Judy's jugular, I'd ask her this: Suppose a girl with "chubby genes" has always dreamed of being a supermodel? Didn't we just say a few moments ago that "any dream can be accomplished"? Just not that one, I guess, huh?

Lightstone's well-meaning article is a perfect example of how the engines of Empowerment go totally off the rails, thereby undermining their credibility, despite their good intentions. They simply don't give enough (if any) thought to the logical integrity or internal consistency of their arguments. They'll use whatever cliches or random snippets of evidence seem expedient for the purpose at hand, even if it means that what they say in paragraph 9 contradicts what they said in paragraph 8. Eating disorders do appear to be a nightmarish problem in this country—a terribly complex nightmarish problem that we're not going to fix with simple-minded platitudes. As we've noted time and again, false cures are worse than no cure at all: They divert or distract people from finding the real solutions that may be otherwise available.

Finally, Lightstone cites a stat I'd read elsewhere: that 68 percent of Stanford co-eds told a researcher they felt worse about themselves after thumbing through women's magazines. So don't tell me that women's magazines exist to "empower" their audience.* And don't insult my intelligence by suggesting that this nefarious assault on readers' insecurities is inadvertent: You won't get a woman to buy your advertisers' pricy beauty products by reassuring her that she's already attractive enough as it is....

*
I am not basing my cynicism about women's magazines solely on that one survey, of course. I cite other evidence in SHAM as well as in articles for National Review Online, and have dealt with the point previously on this blog.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Suppose a girl with "chubby genes" has always dreamed of being a supermodel? Didn't we just say a few moments ago that "any dream can be accomplished"? Just not that one, I guess, huh?"

But there is a kernel of truth to her statement. A person with "chubby genes" could still be a model, just not a supermodel. There ARE plus size models out there, after all, some of them rather well paid.

While "any dream" at all cannot be accomplished, a relentlessly snide debunking tone isnt the answer either. Say someone wanted to be a film actress, but she weighed 200 lbs. She'd be deluding herself if she dreamed of being the next Michelle Pfeiffer or Marilyn Monroe, but what if she set out to become the next Kathy Bates or Queen Latifah? There's a middle ground here between inane optimism and blanket pessimism, verging on cynicism.

You sound to me like someone who was badly burnt by a too naive belief in self-help pabulum in your youth, and now you have an axe to grind against the world. Even if (as I'm sure is the case) 90 or 95 percent of self-help stuff is garbage, SOME of it is well-written and valuable. Not much, but some.

Anonymous said...

Good God! What is that anorexic doll you're featuring?

Steve Salerno said...

Look, anonymous, we're splitting hairs (or waistlines) here. The writer said "any dream" was achievable; I'm just calling her on the point. I don't know how long you've been reading the blog, but in essence you're arguing my argument: that there's nothing wrong with inspiration (lord knows we all need it just to get through the day, sometimes) IF it's reasonable and realistic. But you can't sell a message that goes "You can probably do better. Maybe you can't have what you really want--but maybe if you try super-hard, you can come close, or at least do better than you're doing now." You may even be chuckling as you read that, b/c you sense the absurdity: Who wants to hear that message?? The garden of self-help is fertilized with hyperbole (and I use that metaphor with some specificity). And there's also a larger problem, which is that we never really know what's realistic for any one given individual until it happens. That doesn't mean you should pump up EVERY individual with the quixotic notion that "anything is attainable, there are no limits!" We simply don't know who are the very few people among us for whom there are no limits--not until we see them do the extraordinary. And their success usually guarantees our failure.

Steve Salerno said...

Why, it's Beach Barbie. (Seriously. It's commercially available.) Wake up and smell the bulimia.... :)

a/good/lysstener said...

Though I realize body image is the subordinate vehicle to the main point you're making here about false empowerment, it deserves emphasis in its own right. There is no doubting the problem among young women today, Steve. Even if you are lucky enough to be considered slim and cute, you still feel the pressure to compete. You are surrounded by implications that you're never quite "hot enough." We could debate where it started and who's responsible, but it's everywhere now. It's in the magazines as you say, it's in the movies, it's on the game shows (all those girls on Deal/No Deal!), it's in the eyes of the boys you share classes with. It's unrelenting and there's no escape from it.

kath said...

The magazines can't make women feel that much worse. Or we wouuldn't buy them or consider them a treat:)

Steve Salerno said...

Kath, thanks for weighing in--no pun intended here. I think women have a love-hate relationship with "their" magazines. Come to think of it, they probably have much the same relationship with men... A female coworker once told me, "You guys are lucky there isn't a third species [she really meant gender], because otherwise we women would have nothing to do with you." Point taken.

Cosmic Connie said...

Alyssa, I feel your pain. Seems like the more progress women make in the areas of intellectual achievement and economic gains, the higher the bar is raised in the area of "being hot."

IMO, Steve, Beach Barbie is not too much worse than Bling Bling Barbie (aka Ho Barbie), who celebrates materialism as well as anorexia. Despite the fact that Mattel -- apparently in response to criticism -- re-designed Barbie's bod a few years ago to make it more "realistically" proportioned, Barbie still doesn't reflect the average woman's figure. Yet the dolls keep on selling, and selling, and selling, along with their stupid houses and cars and other accessories.

Even if most women's magazines are not crassly sexual, I think most of them contribute to the problem of "false empowerment" that Ariel Levy wrote about in her book, "Female Chauvinist Pigs" (which I mentioned in my comment to a previous post on this blog). Sure, women these days are free to do a lot of things that were formerly the province of men. But the subtle, and often not-so-subtle, message is that they have to look stunning while doing it. That's just way too much work for the average woman.

I'm reminded of the movie "Coyote Ugly," which came out a few years ago. This flick was touted by some as a statement of "female empowerment." The power of the females in the film, however, was derived almost solely from the fact that they were young and beautiful. Oh, sure, they made some "gutsy" decisions (such as defiantly deciding to dance on the bar, or something...I don't recall much about the movie). And they pushed some of the guys around a little bit. But if any one of them had actually been "coyote ugly," they would not have had any "power" at all in this film.

The more things change, etc. etc. etc. ...

Anonymous said...

Oh stop whining, women. You know you hold all the cards today. Must be nice to be able to use your feminine whiles as a weapon in the war for equality.

RevRon's Rants said...

Whining? Sounds like somebody resents the cards he's been dealt, and longs to be a victim of those wiles, but doesn't have a clue about women.

Connie & Alyssa - You're both right about the bar being raised, but I think it's more an inside job than an external pressure. If you're even remotely attractive, there are plenty of guys who will drool over you, yet many women seem to feel that unless they are universally desired, they have failed, and are somehow flawed. And their own literature seems to reinforce this ludicrous notion. If only you could see through our eyes, rather than merely listening to our bravado...

Cosmic Connie said...

Thanks, Rev, you made some good points. Anon, it may sound as if we're whining, but the truth is that neither gender holds all the cards. And the whole problem with women using their "wiles" to gain equality or power should be obvious: physical attractiveness eventually fades. Once past "a certain age," women are certainly going to have to rely on something besides beauty to get by.

In addition, women who use their looks to get ahead are still in thrall to the prevailing cultural standards of beauty. So who's controlling whom? Whether these beauty standards are dictated by men, women's media, or a combination thereof, they are still superficial criteria that far too many women take way too seriously. Of course, we get a lot of encouragement from the cosmetics and plastic surgery industries.

Trish Ryan said...

The good news is, Mattel has blessed us all with Pooper scooper Barbie - complete with giant golden retriever and a shovel.

If you can imagine it, you can achieve it :)

Anonymous said...

Sure, guys may drool over an attractive woman, but the thing is, they'll drop her for the next one that's even more attractive. (And that's not just a stereotype; don't tell me it doesn't happen.) So it IS an external pressure, if a woman has any desire to keep a man's attention until the next female struts by.

And I don't completely agree that women have all the power. Men have the power to pick who they want, while the women go to extreme lengths to win a man's lasting affection. And what do men do to make themselves more attractive to women? You're lucky if they even follow basic hygiene etiquette. And somehow they still attract beautiful women and have the power to get rid of them the second they either get too old or stop trying so hard to maintain their looks. Because there will always be another woman willing to try harder to get a man's attention. So if, by women having power, you mean that men are weak enough to be unable to resist them, then that is an external pressure to always be more beautiful, because men won't resist the next hot thing that comes along.

However, the trend can't change because as soon as women start following this idealistic notion of attracting men by being themselves, they'll just end up alone anyway. Because if you're going to say that a woman's charm is her power over men, then it's no surprise that many women will continue to do anything to maintain that power. So if men are the powerless ones, then they can't change the way things are either, and the cycle continues.

ellesappelle said...

It's such a relief to read your blog and find someone saying what everyone is indirectly saying but will not admit to. The "follow your dreams" and "believe in yourself" thing makes me gag now, I'm so sick of hearing it. Who said dreams were always such great things to follow anyway? Kurt Cobain and Michael Hutchence followed theirs and look where it got them. The implication is that if you have a dream, you must sacrifice certain things for it because it is the point of your life and it is where you are headed, because destiny pulls you in that direction, and anything that holds you back is unworthy.

Steve Salerno said...

Well, anon, at least you've managed to retain your optimism in the face of it all...

RevRon's Rants said...

Hmmm... Sounds like I might have missed on the gender, anyway...

Anonymous - The behavior you describe is consistent with insecure boys, rather than men. They might be 60 years old, but have obviously never progressed past the adolescent "I am what I conquer" phase. A man finds beauty in a partner, and if there is a real connection, sees that beauty deepen and grow. I see attractive women all the time, but have yet to feel even remotely tempted. My lady knows I'm not shopping, but also knows that if I ever stop looking, it's time for her to worry. :-)

I really hope you find a loving relationship. But in order to do so, you'll need to let go of the bitterness long enough to taste the sweetness you seem to have missed out on.

(Humorous note: verification word for this entry is "curall.")

Dr. "Swill" McGraw (formerly Anon #1) said...

" you can't sell a message that goes "You can probably do better. Maybe you can't have what you really want--but maybe if you try super-hard, you can come close, or at least do better than you're doing now." You may even be chuckling as you read that, b/c you sense the absurdity: Who wants to hear that message?? "

Yet that was the message Ralph Waldo Emerson sold a century and a half ago. He was vastly popular and had sold-out crowds wherever he lectured. In fact there's scarcely a self-help tome published today that doesn't sound like some weird amalgam of Emerson and Oprah. So self-help obviously isn't a new genre per se, b/c all the essential notes were sounded by Emerson almost 200 years ago.

So the question is: How did we get from Emerson to Emerson For Morons (Anthony Robbins & company)?

also, re: the women's mags. this isn't a new problem. in the 20s the "flapper" look was fashionable, and this made a lot of large-breasted women unhappy. then the hourglass, voluptuous look came back, and the small, thin, boyish figured women became miserable. all of which is to say you can't separate out the self-help industry from the rest of culture and the mass media so easily. obviously most self-help books are crap, but most best-selling novels are crap, most hit movies are crap, most magazine articles are crap. is that an argument against novels, films, journalism in general - or just a law of averages? it doesn't follow that one should stop reading novels and watching movies altogether.

i have read a few excellent self-help books, that did not make empty promises or claim "You can have everything you want"; perhaps because I found Dr. Phil and Anthony Robbins smarmy and vapid whenever I saw them on TV, and was never tempted to crack the spine of any of their books. so I managed not to read the bad ones.

Steve Salerno said...

Well, assuming your question isn't rhetorical--"How did we get from Emerson to Emerson For Morons (Anthony Robbins & company)?"--I would say you might find some answers in a book called SHAM. :) Or to be super-honest, if you want a more detailed analysis of the historical underpinnings of the movement, try Self Help Inc. by Micki McGee or even I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional by Wendy Kaminer. They spend relatively more time on a scholarly analysis of the "how," whereas I devote most of my book to an exploration of the "what" and "why we as a society should care."

Cosmic Connie said...

I thought Trish was joking about Pooper Scooper Barbie, but I shoulda known better. I just saw the latest circular from Toys "Backward R" Us (as Dave Barry called it), and not only is there a Pooper Scooper Barbie (official name, "Barbie & Tanner"), but there's a Kitty Litter Teresa. Teresa comes complete with her own rather chunky-looking Siamese cat, "Mika," which has a little pink bowl and its own pink litter box. Also available for the box: real litter, plastic "kitty McNuggets" (better keep Tanner away from 'em) and time-release ammonia capsules to add that "air of realism." Plus, all of Teresa's furniture in her Dream Home is riddled with claw marks. :-)

But seriously...
I agree with "Dr. Swill" that there are a few worthwhile books in the self-help genre. But most of them are crap. Alas, this doesn't seem to matter. Steve, Wendy Kaminer and Micki McKee are definitely fighting an uphill battle. When is Larry King going to invite *them* on his show? He could call the segment, "Sick of Self-Help," or something like that. Now, THAT would be good TV.

Anonymous said...

"...you'll need to let go of the bitterness long enough to taste the sweetness you seem to have missed out on."

I thought this warranted a response. It's not the bitterness that causes the problem (or at least not for many people). Where do you think the bitterness comes from? I'll tell you: Years of trying to put forth an honest effort to "taste the sweetness" and getting burnt every time. It's difficult to retain one's optimism when things never work out in the end.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Where do you think the bitterness comes from? I'll tell you: Years of trying to put forth an honest effort to "taste the sweetness" and getting burnt every time."

I'm so sorry you've had some bad experiences. Believe it or not, many people have experienced pain after pain, and I know it can be a real challenge to keep hoping for the best. But keeping one's guard up so high can't protect you from further hurt... It has its own hurt built in. I wish you good luck.

Steve Salerno said...

RevRon, you seem like a genuinely good guy. I don't know you that well, but I gotta believe that if there were more of you, there'd be fewer of her. I dare say, you give people--perish the thought--hope!

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve -
The hope probably fades once they get to know me! :-)

Anyway... Thanks. I've seen so many people who cling to their bitterness as if it were a warm shawl on a blustery day, never realizing that their sadness is self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating. I'm not directing this specifically at anonymous, either. She just made me think of others I've known.

Anonymous said...

Dear Steve,

Judy Lightstone, Ph.D., is a skilled psychotherapist in eating disorders and dissociation. Even better that, she knows how to read!

The quote in your article,

["Today in America you can be whatever you want to be - any dream can be accomplished as long as you pursue it"]

was not written by Dr. Lightstone, but by Christine Hartline, MA (Dying to Fit In- Literally! Learning to Love Our Bodies and Ourselves).

You misread the author's name from the original article.

Not to worry: Judy's work stands for itself and she probably wouldn't mind. She is intelligent, sophisticated and discerning.

Plus, she can read!