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Edward Bernays, the nephew of the groundbreaking psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, was the first to use the power of storytelling for financial gain during his successful career as a publicist.
In the late 1920s, he was given the herculean task of changing a seemingly hard and fast social rule that only men were smokers.
In fact, at the time, smoking was seen as a habit that was considered completely inappropriate for women, deriving his client, the American Tobacco Company, of nearly 50 percent of the potential consumer market.
At this same time in human history, the women’s liberation movement was just gaining steam. Bernays paid the psychoanalyst, A. A. Brill, to make a statement indicating that it was normal for women to smoke because of oral fixation and that “Today, the emancipation of women has suppressed many of their feminine desires. More women now do the same work as men do. Many women bear no children; those who do bear have fewer children. Feminine traits are masked. Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom.”
On March 31, 1929, Bernays paid female actresses to smoke their “torches of freedom” as they walked in the Easter Sunday Parade in New York. He hired his own photographers and made sure that the pictures were published around the world. This first marketing propaganda campaign was wildly successful for the tobacco company, resulting in this type of misinformation tactic growing more and more as capitalism became the global norm.
The famous 70s “Crying Indian” advertising campaign against plastic waste was funded by the plastic companies to push the blame for the environmental damage they were guilty of themselves on to the consumer.
In our modern culture, our ethical boundaries have become blurred beyond recognition by our shared manifest destiny-level drive to increase the bottom line. The marketing industry has warped self-care messaging into a solid stream of body shaming propaganda. A great deal of profit came with the realization that we are willing to pay for the lifestyle, the prestige, and the happiness we think the product will provide us far above the item’s actual tangible value. Just like the economic systems that are ruled by Wall Street, our “free market” teeters precariously on our collective emotional whim.
Would the pre-renaissance woman have given over her household’s hard-earned income for foot coverings? Only if she needed foot coverings. Yet, the modern woman looks at those completely impractical pair of shoes that will surely cause her great physical pain by walking in them for even a short time and imagines that they will make her feel sexy, tall, glamorous, sophisticated…she then concludes that they are worthy of her financial sacrifice.
To complete the journey to acceptance, we must first realize that the mass majority of the shortcomings we feel in ourselves are not based on reality but rather on a subconscious construct placed in our psyche by our consumerist culture. The one that pins us against each other in the same type of capitalist competition.
If our culture is constantly reminding us that life’s goal is simply to be the “winner,” then we will continue to pay to “better” ourselves in the eyes of our society. Karl Marx framed the idea this way, “Peter only establishes his own identity as a man by first comparing himself with Paul as being of like kind. And thereby Paul, just as he stands in his Pauline personality, becomes to Peter the type of the genus homo.”
This type of competitive comparison leads us to blindly buy into the messaging that is fed to us by our culture. This idea that the only way to be better or have value is through acquiring the commodities that others covet. That a new car will make us feel wealthy while driving us deep into debt. The shoes that make us feel sexy while crippling us physically. Then when these purchases fall short of the desired outcome, we determine that the lack must be in us and turn back to the same capitalist narrative to find the next false source of self-worth.
But the fault lies not in the items, nor the messaging, but in our belief that the next purchase will be the purchase that provides us with a feeling of worthiness.
I, for one, have fallen prey to the competitive attitude toward female beauty for most of my adult life. Being thin for the majority of childhood, I never gave my weight even a passing thought. Now, as a middle-aged woman who has been a “plus-size” for the entirety of my adulthood, I have spent the better part of the last 20 years abusing my body in the pursuit of this beauty ideal.
I believed on a subconscious level that my worth as a woman, and the very value I possessed as a human being, could never hold up in our competitive culture due to the number on my bathroom scale. Nothing worked, and no matter how healthy I kept my diet and how much I exercised, I could not drop any weight. It was only during the last year when I was under the care of a doctor, who for 11 months placed me on a regime of daily amphetamine use along with a starvation level diet of caloric restriction, that the insanity of what I was doing became clear.
I was hungry—always hungry—and never a moment passed without the thought toward the next bit of food I was “allowed” to eat. This was swiftly followed by an overwhelming feeling of guilt and shame for eating anything at all and, therefore, failing in my efforts to achieve any small victory toward this ridiculous goal.
This cyclical form of self-torture left me empty inside, but each time I would lose even a few pounds, those around me would reinforce this unhealthy thought pattern with compliments on my physical appearance.
Of course, as I’m sure you have already guessed, even the slightest respite from this food-based torture would lead to massive weight gain as my body had rightly adjusted to what it believed was the constant threat of starvation. It was quickly packing on the pounds in preparation for the next length of scarcity it was sure I was to experience. Having no clue that wasting away was actually my goal, my body was simply trying to survive my abuse.
Only recently have I begun to be able to step back from this unhealthy lifestyle and return to intuitive eating.
I eat when I’m hungry. What a concept! However, it took a few months to show my body that I was no longer in a starvation situation. That I did not need to pack on the pounds to survive the next food drought.
I still eat healthily, but now, I listen to my body and fulfill its needs rather than denying it in the pursuit of an unattainable ideal.
In return, my body no longer aches with hunger. The darkness of denial has lifted and I’m able to look in the mirror and smile at the woman I am, no longer berating her for not being who she never could truthfully be.
This is freedom from the darkness.
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