soap-box and suspicion
Friday, November 14, 2014
I keep reading about the idea of reorienting our values here at SP, in blogs and articles: "Be more upbeat!" or "love yourself!" or "stop that negative self-talk!" While I agree wholeheartedly in theory with these very well-intentioned exhortations, I also notice that no one offers any sort of road-map, or "how-to" guide, or rationale as to how this can be done. I think there are several different issues at work here. There is the issue of our own self-esteem. There is also the issue of social context. And finally there is the issue of how the two are interrelated. None of us live in a bubble. We would be well advised to adopt a somewhat more critical outlook on the world around us and on what society claims to value, and where these "values" (that are now ours) are coming from, and exactly to what extent we swallow the product being sold to us.
Our negative self-talk doesn't just come out of thin air. We have at some point chosen to adopt values that are external to us, that are in fact not our own values. We have also accepted that some values are more 'valuable' than others. This is most definitely the case when it comes to beauty and physical appearance. The idea that something or someone can be beautiful and that beauty has value beyond the merely physical has been with us since Plato. Our brains seem to be hard-wired for absolutes, and beauty is at the top of the list. Intriguingly enough, however, there is no consistency over time and space as to what type of body shape or bone structure is "beautiful." The value of beauty as it is expressed in our culture impacts on you and I every day, all day. So we are never just fighting ourselves and our own negative self-talk. We are fighting something much bigger. And in order to be able to resist negative self-talk, we have to understand where it comes from. We have to learn how to peel away values we have internalized that are fundamentally extraneous to us, and discover what it is we really value both about other humans and about ourselves. We have to, in fact, redefine our understanding of what is beautiful. This is a huge job that involves an awareness of our own internal emotional landscape as well as a brain that knows how to navigate cultural currents. Big words, right?
We are all egoists. We assume we are smart enough to figure things out ourselves. We aren't. We have to first of all accept that we have limitations, to find out how and where to look for answers, and to learn to pin-point parallels and how to access information. These are basic skill-sets. In terms of self-esteem, insofar as it is a popular issue at SP, we all have a great deal to learn from civil rights. Is discrimination based on weight the same as discrimination based on race or religion or sexual orientation or physical abled-ness? No. Discrimination against something that can't be changed (skin color, physical ability, gender preference, etc ...) is a separate and much more serious issue than weight loss. I am not trying to efface difference here, or to draw false parallels (let's not kid ourselves). My point is merely that the struggle to resist the dominant societal framework is always a struggle against values that are not our own but that impact negatively on us nonetheless. The good news is that the battle has already been and is still being fought with dignity, courage, humor, and a great deal of insight by (for instance) African Americans, feminists, civil rights activists, etc ... These individuals (and groups) have a lot to teach us about a hermeneutics of suspicion. About identifying and rejecting values that are not our own. About the power of solidarity. About learning how to think. About self-acceptance.
I really wonder sometimes about this obsession with being physically fit. Do I think it is a good thing to be physically healthy? Of course I do (I am not a complete idiot!). Do I think it is enough? No, I sure don't. The mind can be as finely tuned as the body of any Olympic athlete. And while our bodies need exercise to function at peak efficiency, so do our minds. Why is it not ok to absorb a Mars bar or some Pringles but it is somehow perfectly (and perversely) fine to absorb hours of junky crime-dramas and reality shows on TV? How can we live a balanced life if our intellectual stimulation comes from watching and reading junk? The effect is the same:
Physical atrophy / mental atrophy
tomato / tomahto.
We all learn here at SP that getting physically fit is a process that takes time and effort. Well, so is learning to think. And since weight-loss and maintenance are, as so many SP articles and SP blogs point out, a largely mental process, then we are very ill-prepared indeed to deal with issues relating to self-esteem. I think when it comes to me personally, being realistically upbeat about my good qualities is fine, in fact it is more realistic than the negative self-talk. Why is intelligence and/or compassion and/or kindness not particularly valued in our society? Why is it more important and more valuable to be thin and/or attractive? Society is wrong. I know that. Eight year old Palestinian refugees know that. I hope all of you know that too.