Friday, January 10, 2014

On Self-Obsession and Self-Hatred

Today some students were discussing Victoria Secrets models.  Some of the girls have significant contempt for the women that show off the latest fashions in lingerie.  It's curious to me that I don't think I ever felt that way in high-school even though it seems to be the dominant mindset.  I don't know if it's because I studied art or if it's why I studied art, but as far as I recall, I've always been able to separate the ideals of beauty from my own body-image stuff.

Magazine ads and articles are often slagged for teaching girls to live up to an unrealistic ideal.  I wonder if, for someone deleteriously affected by the magazines or runway shows, that there's something amiss already. I think it has to do with a growing sense of entitlement.

We're a covetous lot.  Many of us don't even know what that means not to mention why it's a problem. When we see something, we don't even try to stop ourselves from dwelling on our desire for it.  We just want it.  And we work for it, and take out a loan, and own it.  And we're happy - briefly.  So many of the early philosophers spilled a lot of ink on the benefits of reducing our desires that I think they were probably on to something.

From time to time we're set up against something we can't so easily own, like a perfectly symmetrical face and slender body both faithful to fibonacci's proportions.  Because the mind-set is to get it, we suffer cognitive dissonance when we fail until we decide the problem isn't with us, but with the magazine or model.  For a long while now we've just decided the problem is with ideal forms of beauty.  Sure, there's a strong correlation between magazine sales and body image problems, BUT maybe they're both precipitated by this me-oriented culture.

My mother used to say that the secret of happiness is to never compare yourself to others.  The stoics did her one better and suggested we compare ourselves to people worse off than ourselves.  I'm not sure if it was great self-esteem, or a body image so poor I didn't see myself on the same plane as these women, but I've never compared myself to a model.  I have problems understanding why anyone would.  And I think maybe a big part of that is that I believe we all have something interesting about us, and interesting trumps perfection.  A picture-perfect (or photoshopped) woman likely has something interesting too, but it'll be different than what I'm currently rockin'.

Unfortunately, I don't know how I bought into that notion so completely, so I can't adequately teach it to others beyond just the telling of it.   But it's not just useful to convince people to stop desiring ideals with respect to beauty, but to stop desiring anything unnecessary to their life and outside their power to attain, and to start recognizing how much they already have.  Particularly in this part of the world.

It takes a bit of practice, but I think it's entirely possible to train ourselves to stop wanting everything we see.

And, if we can look at beauty without an impulse to have it (to be or to possess), then it can be appreciated with relish.  It's a different feeling, an intoxicating one too many miss out on, to look at a beautifully interesting face and body with reverence rather than contempt.

I don't believe it's the case that people will stop finding less-than-perfect women desirable.  Attraction is different than attractiveness.  It involves a draw towards gestures and words and ideas and connections.  You don't have to look like a super model to get laid or married.  I'm not even sure it necessarily helps.  

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