September 1, 2011

Help! I’ve Been Abducted by Aliens! ~ Judith Ellen

Photo: Adam Foster

Can someone please tell me who are these people who equate going buff with some kind of social consciousness?

I’m always one to seek out fresh ideas and believe that every thing, everyone, every seemingly pithy encounter is a breeding ground for inspiration.

If I’m not inspired by something, then at the very least I will laugh at it. I will laugh so hard that I will cry. If I’m crying, it’s for one of two reasons: either I’m uncontrollably inconsolable or I’m once again lamenting what this world has come to. I owe this week’s tears to a friend who posted this status: “Hotness credited to yoga. Love it.”

She was referring to this article about Maroon 5’s lead singer, Adam Levine, posing nude for British Cosmo Magazine in support of prostate cancer awareness. The article also briefly references other yoga devotees who shed their coverings for a PETA campaign. Can someone please tell me who are these people who equate going buff with some kind of social consciousness? I know a heap of activists, and I’ve never seen them naked (thank god).

These acts of omission are just plain conceited and egotistical, and trivialize major issues. Do you really think that men who are at risk for prostate cancer will be inspired to get a screening after gazing at Adam Levine’s tiny, short man? These types of images, fantasy-driven and exquisitely photoshopped, are a dime a dozen.

You needn’t be in Time Square to get a ration of beauty­-image-blitz to realize that a preoccupation with what we look like and how much we weigh is a national pastime. Somewhere between first grade and dropping out of college to go find ourselves and do yoga, we’ve removed our critical thinking cap, hit the snooze button and have rolled over to go back to sleep. Here is your wake-up call (thank you, Adam).

While you’ve been asleep, our world has experienced a close encounter of the third kind. Whenever you’re confronted with ads for designer clothes and accessories, infomercials for fad diets and workout regimens, or simply reaching for bottled water in the refrigerated aisle squeezed between energy drinks and soda, there is a switch in the brain that goes on. Without your knowledge and authorization, a chip was implanted deep in the cerebrum by these invaders. You receive subliminal messaging about thinness and ideal beauty. The messages convince you that you are not quite good enough and in need of some type of extreme makeover. Not even the most educated among us is immune in the least to the barrage of missives.

Actually, this makes you more of a sucker, er, conscientious consumer and ensures that at some point down the road you will buy product X or a version of it. It sounds out-of-this-world-ish, but it’s actually a simple, scientific principle called persuasion, and advertisers hire social psychologists to consult on the best way to get us to buy products. Even if you’ve killed your television and are proud of it, you are still within firing range and there’s no escape. The most persuasive tools are sex, food, and a distorted view of our bodies.

Research has proven that body image and psychological well-being are determined by exposure to idealized media images. I am happy for Jared’s triumphant weight-loss, but I can’t help but wonder why he chose Subway as his meal plan. Was Richard Simmon’s Deal-A-Meal really less appealing than the happy, shiny actors in the Subway commercials?

Photo: Miss Universe Pagaent

In the 1940s, William Sheldon, a psychologist, introduced the Somatotype Theory, the idea that human beings can be categorized into three distinct body shapes (ectomorphs, endomorphs, and mesopmorphs) and each type has a corresponding character or personality trait. If you are an endomorph, you are, shall we say, big-boned and store layers of adipose tissue (fat) in your body. You are also lazy, jovial, and have very little impulse control so you tend to overeat.

The rest is history and set into motion a creation of false standards by which we judge each other. In time, all the images we see of blondness, blue-eyes, chiseled chins and chests and shapeless legs begin to meld together, and we cannot distinguish one individual from another. We sat watching the Miss Universe Pageant, and my friend noticed that if you could remove the heads of the contestants and put them on each other’s bodies there would be no difference. She was right.

To prove his theory, Dr. Sheldon conducted studies on male undergrads at Yale and took nude photos of them without their informed consent to participate in his research. His theory has long since been discredited in the world of psychology, but the world of pop health and fitness promises weight loss tailored to your unique body type. It’s not fair to hold Sheldon responsible for every maladaptive response, but much of his work was informed by eugenics and all of these standards of beauty have been shaped by racism and sexism.

The British documentary Bleach, Nip, Tuck chronicles the lives of four men and women of color who are convinced that something is gravely wrong with either their noses, skin color, or legs and are in need of surgical intervention. Unfortunately, the psycho-sociological assault on humanity disproportionately affects girls more than boys. Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia movements are not designed to support healthy body/weight images, but to give an underground voice to girls and women who believe anorexia nervosa and bulimia are lifestyles choices and not diseases.

Photo: Brooke Shields Calvin Klein Ad

Right smack in the middle of puberty, I was issued a warning by my father: I was developing a double chin and needed to watch my weight. I hadn’t noticed, with my mind all on boys and such. I took his fatherly advice to heart, ditched the boy scene, and became whipped by the need to look at my face from different angles in the mirror. All of the sudden my nose was way too big for my face, and I hated how my thighs seemed to get chunkier when I sat down.

Thinking I might have eluded the madness, I attended an elite, prep-boarding school for high school. In a short amount of time, I quickly noticed a pattern. Many of the girls would cut pages from fashion magazines and hang them in border or as wallpaper around their dorm rooms. There were ads of models in lingerie, in shoes, in Burberry from head to toe. The most popular ones were the Calvin Klein ads with groups of preppy kids hanging off one another vying for who could look the most aloof and comely. How peculiar it was for a young black girl to have pictures of white models hugging the walls of her room.

In her journey toward puberty, one of my daughter’s best friends has been put on notice: lose weight or forever suffer the consequences of health-conscious, but boneheaded parents. They’ve hired a personal trainer for her. She is a kid with a solid build, a round, beautiful face, and a charming disposition. She also is very physically active and has yet to hit her growth spurt, which will lengthen her body and even out her BMI. My daughter watches her friend bemoaning her caloric intake and wondering if the snack some kid has offered to her in school is okay with her diet. During Father’s Day, she told her dad that she was hungry and wanted more to eat. He said no because she needed to watch her weight. She yelled at him saying that she wished he was not her father. He grounded her.

I think he also, has been abducted by aliens.


Judith Ellen is co-founder of Transcend Consulting, a firm providing mindfulness based approaches to education, health and wellness, and cultural competence training services.  She brings over 15 years of experience as an educator, yoga instructor, and personal trainer to her work with adolescents,  women, and historically under-served, urban populations.  She could babble further about all the funky stuff she does, but you decide if she’s worth the time by checking out her street cred: http://transcendconsulting.org and http://feistywords.blogspot.com.

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