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.


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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    What a great blog, love your thinking processes. I had already written my recent blog about physical beauty and inner beauty before I read this. Honest! It touches lightly on your more in depth analysis here. I did smile at your thoughts on those who feel it necessary to fix their bodies while little or no thought is given to intellectual pursuits. Once again, my 'good enough is good enough' lifestyle punches in. I'd rather read Grisham or King than Shakespeare any old day. My choices in life have been made in regard to that with which I've been exposed, even though my mental bucket may be only half filled, I'm grateful for the size of my bucket.
    Again, love your style, my attention span only allowed me to skim the comments, but you've got a pretty sharp set of friends here. Especially nice to see my friend Bruce there. He's a huge inspiration to me. Take care, and thanks for the friend add, Vic
    2376 days ago
    Hi Danielle,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughts. I also enjoyed reading the comments elicited by your blog.

    For myself, and perhaps a few others, what matters most is justice.

    I know full well that justice is elusive and seldom achieved. Your mention of civil rights got me to thinking that there is no way to legislate attitude or values. Laws, both good and bad, are aimed at controlling behavior.

    The subtleties of Social Norming is also aimed at controlling behavior, I really have no issue with behavioral control. The penalties associated with violating social mores are not explicitly defined. But there are severe penalties, none-the-less.

    What is the worst penalty that can be visited upon us? Isolation. The fat and unattractive among us are shunned. The beautiful people get to go places and do interesting things.

    Maybe, maybe not.

    2403 days ago
    Hi Danielle, luckily I had already cooked lunch, so didn't burn anything this time! I really enjoyed reading your blog, and oddly had drafted something about self-esteem and image earlier, which hopefully I'll post later. My first reaction, in my egocentric introspective universe was to want to defend myself, along the lines of "no, no, I did this for me, for my health, for longevity to see my child grow, to finally reach a goal". Complete bs of course. I did it because I don't want to be fat any more, and I want to look nice in my clothes, and be attractive to my partner (who ironically prefers me bigger). Of course the other reasons are all valid too, but when it comes down to it, I'm vain, and just bloody fed up with being fat. Would I be happy to be fat if a Rubenesque figure were all the rage? If it was socially acceptable to be plump and pink cheeked? Yes, probably. I wonder how women of that era felt, if they were naturally thin, and thought unattractive and scrawny, and didn't receive any romantic attention? I wonder if they ate pork pies all long to try and pad out? I imagine that the majority were just as obsessed as the majority of us are these days.

    Ironically, the women I look up to, the Jane Austen and George Elliot type women, I love because they dared to follow their writing dreams, often against opposition. I myself feel most free as a human being when I am engaged in something I love - gardening, painting, creating; time drifts, and I couldn't care less about what I looked like or how much I weighed. Ego side stepped? I do, also, indulge in crappy tv, although I find I have less and less tolerance for it, but it is like a barometer for my mental state; more crappy tv, the more atrophied my mind is. It develops into a negative spiral, the effort of switching the tv off to do something better seems too much, the more tv, the worse it gets. Having ditched mindless eating, it can't be that hard to ditch mindless tv.
    Is there a balance to be struck here? Health and fitness:good. Obsessive health and fitness for the sake of being a certain size/shape, often contra to one's natural shape can't be a good thing. If we could ban tv, ban the fast food/sugar laden snacks, and redeploy all the ad men into something useful, like market gardening, then I think the human race might just stand a chance. :-)

    Food for thought (your blog), definitely, and conversely, thought for food; giving up mindless tv can only bring benefits (I once gave it up entirely for three months and felt so much better, but then like a failed dieter, gained back every crappy hour I'd given up!)

    I really enjoy your blogs. and clearly you stir something in people.

    Best wishes
    2405 days ago
    This is a very insightful blog. I agree that there is too much emphasis placed on what people look like and less on whether they are kind to others. I think a big key to getting healthy both mentally and physically must be changing how we think about ourselves and others. There is so much to think about here. I think it would be very freeing for me if I could get tot his place mentally. I still measure myself against other people too much of the time.
    2406 days ago
    Yes, dead on Danielle! We are not intended to have self-esteem in Western cultures. It's a bizarre intersection of messages about 'Be your own authentic self' and 'Be an individual' and 'Make things happen for yourself' with conflicting messages about 'Who you are now will never ever be good enough' and 'You should be deeply dissatisfied.' Together those two sets of messages tell us if we perceive ourselves as imperfect (which we are taught we are) it is also our fault for not being able to haul ourselves up through sheer force of will.

    We live in an economy that relies on and therefore cultivates individual dissatisfaction. Here's a product that will make it seem you have no pores ("I'm not supposed to have pores!? Damn!") Here's a new and better car, cellphone, computer, bike, TV, toy, diet product... It's almost impossible to resist the messages that what we have, who we are, is not good enough.

    When 85% of 6th grade girls are on diets at any one point in time, how can low self-esteem be anything but epidemic? In contrast, men and boys have been supposed to hide any concern they have with their appearances, because such concern - and certainly dieting - is seen as feminine, and undermines their masculinity. So they are still supposed to look masculine, but not look like they care, or try... Healthy eating has been equated with women and girls, and with eating for weight loss. So men and boys have been expected to display disregard for healthy eating.

    Sadly, this seems to be changing... A study I recently completed with colleagues here in Canada found young men (16-24) were much more comfortable saying they are watching what they eat. Because the 'war on obesity' language allows them to cast this in terms of health, rather than appearance. So the body-beautiful standard that has plagued women and girls for way too long is spreading to boys and young men, under the lanugage of health. I expect a rise in eating disorders among boys and men in the next decade...

    Like you, I am not against healthy eating or physical fitness. But it is very hard to separate it out from societal messages about ideal appearances. And everyone says they are 'doing it for themselves, not for anyone else'... but everyone is striving toward the same ideal that is socially constructed. I try hard to focus on increasing strength and fitness, not on what I look like... but just because we can critically analyze the social messages does not mean we are immune to them!
    2406 days ago

    Comment edited on: 11/15/2014 9:57:44 AM
    I def. wont be able to look at "real housewives of wherever" the same. I wish I had had a cup of coffee before reading, I feel ill equipped to comment on this.
    This is all so true!
    2406 days ago
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    I admit, I enjoy junk crime dramas, though much less now that I'm married to a police detective who likes to point out every error and inconsistency. I haven't been able to watch Law & Order for years!

    Self esteem has been a major obstacle all my life, but I actually something that is working for me. For years, I have been judging every person I ever walked past, saw on the television, in the newspaper, etc., holding them up on a pedestal or looking down on them from soapbox. It was exhausting, and certainly not a personality trait of which I was proud. So this past year, rather than making a New Year's Resolution to lose weight as I have every year since I was 7, I resolved to stop trash talking others in my head.

    I really had to work at it the first few months, but now I don't find (create) flaws the moment I look upon a person. And now that I'm not projecting my self loathing on to everyone else, I'm doing it a lot less to myself, as well.
    2406 days ago
    Well said
    2406 days ago
    Wow. Just wow.

    I think everyone already said what I was going to say, but right-on sister! You give much to ponder!


    This should totally be a featured blog.
    2406 days ago
    My weight loss goals were once for attractiveness to make my mother happy. I personally found happiness ignoring the mirror. My current weight loss has been without the mirror, merely for health reasons. The pride I have in my weight loss is I have met my goals to be taken off of most of my meds, to take control of my health, and to be able to do more. I think I failed so much in the past because I was trying to please someone else, but I succeeded when threatened by multiple doctors.
    So agree that self esteem should not evolve around physical attributes. I taught my daughter to love her personality, her sense of humor, just to love herself without concern of others. It's something I strive for in myself, so I made sure she could and always would.
    2406 days ago
    Thank you for this excellent blog, HOLIERTHANTHOU.

    Your Mars bars/junky crime dramas analogy is so right! It DOES seem acceptable in our society to let our brains atrophy by failing to challenge ourselves. I believe, from my own personal experience and observation, that the issues of food and intellectual activity are very closely linked. "Carb comas" (an expression I've only recently heard but a phenomenon I've experienced a million times) are not conducive to constructive intellectual activity, don't you think? The same can be said of anorexia, and all the other food-related craziness in our culture. At different times in my life, whenever I've been under the influence of too many or too few calories (eating disorders), I've been not only PHYSICALLY incapable of important thought (much too groggy!), but also emotionally incapable, because all my brain power was focused on the impossible goal of making my body conform to society's ideal. What a bleak emotional landscape so many women of our generation have inhabited! What a waste of life, when we could have been using our energy so much more constructively!

    2406 days ago
    emoticon emoticon emoticon great blog
    2407 days ago
    Thanks Danielle; This was, you'll excuse the phrase, thought provoking :)

    One of the points you are making reminds me of an article I read once written by a woman who had become paralyzed. She had some use of her arms, I believe. And in the midst of this article she had written about the process of waking up in a hospital room suddenly disabled and with this huge rehab and recovery ahead of her, she talked about how strangely liberating it was that she no longer had to attempt AT ALL to comport with the limited way our society defines female beauty. And I was bowled over. Our crazy making culture that emphasizes "beauty" over, well, everything else, is so stifling that someone who has had this horrific event happen to her finds joy in being able to "opt out" of that particular rat race!

    On another point you raise, I believe that with many other kinds of discrimination the world (or at least my little world here in Massachusetts) has moved in my lifetime toward a better place; it is illegal to discriminate based upon sex, sexual orientation, age, race, disability. More importantly, people's hearts and minds have changed. My children and their friends would never even consider associating with someone who is a racist, or homophobic. But fat shaming goes on in the open all the time.

    Recently an overweight woman did a photo essay project, in which she had herself photographed in public places doing banal tasks. She has collected and published a series of these photographs in which people around her are caught by the camera in the act of sneering or otherwise negatively reacting to her, just for being fat! It is illuminating, and heartbreaking, and very brave work. I will try to find a link to it and post it to you later, you would I believe find it very powerful.

    Thank you again for this fascinating post.

    2407 days ago
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    Wow, great blog, and a quite a bit to think about for me. I find that I definitely talk to myself in ways that I would never talk to someone else. Why do we allow ourselves to behave that way. The positive feedback from others though can be so empowering and sickeningly sweet - too much some days, just depends on my mindset that day. If I'm feeling good about myself, I like, if not, I just don't want to even see it. Your comparison of physical and mental atrophy is right on. But years of bad behavior (whatever that definition is to us) can take even longer to undo. Even when I have been at a goal weight where I was extremely happy, its hard to turn off that negative soundtrack in my mind. I heard someone saying today (on a podcast I listen to) about being poisoned. He was doing hypnosis for smoking - the therapist told him, if your girlfriend was slowing poisoning you everyday, putting chemicals in your food for example, what would you do? You wouldn't keep allowing it to happen, we would break up with that person, so why do we do this to ourselves - whatever that bad habit it, for me, eating food I know is harmful to my body. Gave me a new perspective and something to work on.

    Sorry, probably rambling way off topic here, but your blog inspired me!
    2407 days ago
    After reading today's blog, I have begun to think about weight loss in much the same way as I do religion. When you are first exposed to the world's values you did so under the care of a parent or guardian. In trusting that person, who you believed meant the best for you, you accepted that persons values on pure faith. Over time, you experienced the world independently and those experiences added shape to your value system, you let some pieces fall, while changing others and even added some. This process takes place over and over again as you age, the more experiences you have, the more people you meet, the more you question yourself and others the more your value system changes. Since none of us will ever follow the same path to enlightenment, there can be no guide, no road map, behind us lay the embers of the trail we blazed, while ahead of us lay the infinite possibilities of which we yet have no knowledge.

    The decisions you make and how you internalize the result are based upon what you believe and can come to terms with at that given moment. It is an ascension in the thought process. Beauty is an abstract concept but when you have self esteem and the confidence to believe yourself to be beautiful, then you are. It's all about faith, in this instance faith in yourself. The theory is as simple as that. Building that confidence however, changing the way you see yourself within the cultural guidelines and expectations of the world's inhabitant's is no simple task, it may take a lifetime. In midlife, some of us will settle into our belief system and remain there, accepting what is. However others will continue to strive for more, and continue to delve into their own psyche. It all boils down to one word...... Perception.
    2407 days ago
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    I find the unrelenting wave of "be positive" messages and graphics here a little nauseating at times, but I attributed my reaction to my own cynicism. I do enjoy the positivity radiating from personal blogs.

    I worked in advertising in my twenties and I grew to hate the "marketing mentality". I became very aware of attempts to manipulate and shape people's values, or lack thereof. The trip to healthy is not to me a 2-second meme, but more of a voyage into self knowledge. And sometimes you don't smile through it and shove under feelings that might actually help you.

    Thanks for an interesting blog.
    2407 days ago
    Ok, wow! Definitely continually peeling away the layers to get to the authentic me. Each day I get closer to the core. Fact is, I LIKE me. I LOVE me. NO matter my weight now, what I weighed when I started, I have the same brain. I am capable of making so many decisions, choices, and the trick has been honoring the authentic me in making those choices.

    I have been in maintenance for 4, going on 5 yrs. and I can say the physical changes were MUCH easier than the emotional/spiritual work that I had to do, and that still remains!

    Thank you for this must-read, thought provoking blog. You are awesome at articulating points of view and for that I thank you

    2407 days ago
    Wow - I think I need to stop writing blogs... I can only dream of articulating my thoughts the way you do.

    And I'm not even sure how to respond b/c there is truly so much of interest. I will say that I think it is sad that as a society we focus on physical beauty - though as you said... even that continues to change, meaning what is considered beautiful. Instead of focusing on the person. I get inspirational emails every day & one recently caught my attention:

    "When you start to know someone, all their physical characteristics start to disappear. You begin to dwell in their energy, recognize the scent of their skin. You see only the essence of the person, not the shell. That’s why you can’t fall in love with beauty. You can lust after it, be infatuated by it, want to own it. You can love it with your eyes and your body but not your heart. And that’s why, when you really connect with a person’s inner self, any physical imperfections disappear, become irrelevant."
    Lisa Unger

    So yes, we do need to learn to peel away the values we have internalized... that's the hard part. In simple Diane terms I will still stick with - start loving yourself. Everything about you. Honestly, no, I still don't love my body image, but I have begun to love who I am & I'm peeling away the negativity that I've amassed over the years.

    Thank you for an amazing blog. I too, hope enough people will like this so it can be a featured blog. I think everyone should read it, dwell on it & start doing something about it.
    2407 days ago
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    Great blog, Danielle! Three cheers for recommending working the brain, a sadly neglected aspect of our existence for most people.

    Your ideas about self esteem are correct in that the exhortations to increase our self esteem are attempts to rah-rah us into compliance with some external ideal of beauty (if you are slim and fit, you will "feel better" about yourself). This is patently false as models all over the world who live on drugs and cigarettes can testify.

    I think it is true that creating discipline in one's life -- when it comes to food, drink, TV, crappy relationships, whatever -- can create a positive feeling within one and can certainly improve one's life with all the benefits that confers. But the self esteem most people are talking about is feeling loved and valued in and for ourselves which theoretically comes from one's parents ... or not. If not, to obtain it requires the kind of introspection and re-evaluation of which you speak which is the road less traveled.

    There aren't many shortcuts to wisdom and we're a shortcut society who thinks you can read a brief, watered-down pop psychology article on self esteem and get some.
    2407 days ago
    emoticon emoticon really enjoyed reading this love definately gave food for thought.hope it gets highlighted so others can also contemplate certain aspics ofyour blog. emoticon emoticon
    2407 days ago
    I agree to an extent, but I also think there are two types of society in our lives. The one that comprises our family and friends - the people who love us no matter what we look like or how we sometimes act, and then society at large - the majority of whom we will never meet, would probably not choose to associate with and whose values are often shallow and, occasionally, put forward as their opinion under false pretenses for reasons of self-promotion.

    Self-esteem is an exceptionally complex concept. I don't know about you, but for me it is not fixed. It modulates from day to day, sometimes from hour to hour. It is made up from too many other aspects to be so immutable, and each different person I meet has an effect on the scale of self-judgment balance. Example: Meet someone beautiful and feel that dreaded resentment of comparison and remain in the negative pit, meet someone who is clearly struggling with bigger weight/beauty issues and feel that we are not alone, that not everyone is more beautiful (aka societally acceptable) than us.

    Hopefully, we are losing weight to become a better us FOR us, to improve our health, our quality of life and, hopefully, our longevity - for the people we love as much as for ourselves.

    Great blog, very thought provoking. Now I have more ideas in my head than I know what to do with, so I am going for a walk in this disgustingly cold 46F weather to collect my thoughts. :)
    2407 days ago
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