When I saw Sara’s note on Facebook announcing Project ME! I was at first shocked! It was very bold of her to take such a huge leap. There are others in my life who have lived in the stiffing silence of mental health issues, so I have some small idea of how difficult it must have been. Kudos to you who are true friends and stand by her. Don’t get too comfortable though. Sometimes the time when we are most needed is when it looks like things are “better now”. We’re sticking with you Sara!
So, what to say. I’ve struggled with what I might have to give to this project. These are not my struggles, after all. It’s not my place. I’ve learned through my own self-discovery that as a young, white, able-bodied, mostly neurotypical male, that most of the ideas and beliefs I’d been handed about other people’s reality are totally self-serving and full of crap. Having come to these realizations I now see a lot of people (including many like me), speaking for others about what their reality is, and even what it should be. I don’t want to be that guy. I will try not to be.
What I immediately noticed in Sara’s post was a lot of self-blame, but this isn’t to put Sara on the spot. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. This is for the rest of us. Please allow me to explain.
You see, I don’t see this as a failing of Sara’s. Not even slightly. In some sense, it’s everyone’s. She, like most of us, have been bombarded by messages our whole lives. These messages may not have originated with us, but we are passively complicit with them.
We live in a world dominated by advertising.
Oh please, I’ve heard this before. I’m not so easily affected. I can think for myself!
If that’s the case you might want to take a DNA test, as it’s debatable that you’re human. The science is against you on this one. It says you are! In fact, some suggest that the more you think you aren’t, the more you are. These aren’t the simplistic ads of yesteryear.
Buy brand X, it’s just better!
No, they have gotten many times more sophisticated since then. They have found a more potent message.
You’re not good enough, and it’s all your own fault!
But the message isn’t there in so many words. We are more (though not completely) aware of the direct assertion of words. In fact some of the strongest messages have no words at all. Instead of the simple and obvious “buy brand X”, they have found a tool developed over thousands of years of human evolution. They have found a “magic” tool. It’s a loop-hole, and it leaves us prime for suggestion.
Stories and narratives!
Storytelling: Not just a practice of times past, now quaint and mostly irrelevant. No. Stories and narratives are the back door to our minds; a trait as important to our propagation as a species as was our opposable digits (thumbs) and the brain itself. Stories are the adaptation we use to pass information from one generation to the next. Information about who we are as people, how we should treat others, how to be happy, how to think, and every aspect of our philosophy, ideology and emotional life. To a large degree, we have stopped the practice and passively handed it over. Corporate media has graciously taken over the task for us, presumably to spare us the trouble.
It takes the form of TV, magazines, newspapers, movies, books and even (or especially?) advertisements. It’s no wonder that the latest marketing tactic is no longer merely the promotion of product or brand image, but now Brand Personality. This is the “person” who tells us the stories, and who we are to aspire to be like. They are key that attempts the fit our lock.
But these stories aren’t geared to our benefit or collective happiness. These narratives show us an unattainable ideal that no one can hope to achieve (without being dehumanized or dying in the process), then convey it us as normal and expected, and leave us to make the implication upon ourselves that we don’t belong to it. The genius of it is that when we do so we also take ownership of it, forgetting that it came from outside ourselves. We don’t see calculating corporate interests vying for their piece of the market of our minds. We see compelling narratives with fantastical images, and the primary desire that we universally crave: happiness and comfort. Everything else is secondary and the idea that their product is the conduit simply goes without saying!
Of course, that primary desire always ends up being elusive. Yet, whether or not we buy their product, they have co-opted our idea of normalcy. We’ve taken the bait, and it doesn’t dissipate.
Advertising is cumulative.
We continue to replay that narrative in our minds and incorporate it into our perspective on ourselves and those around us. It begins to colour our interactions with each other. We might make a comment about our weight and how we dislike ourselves for not being able to fit the nice clothing at that brand name store, or about that other person who just “should not be wearing that dress!”
Like a cockroach scoring an unknowingly poisoned piece of bait, we take it and share it with all our friends (this isn’t just my own analogy, but an actual marketing term). This is subliminal advertising at work.
So what kinds of stories are we being told? I’d like to leave it to the wonderful Jean Kilbourne and her presentation called Killing us Softly 4.
On top of this (and perhaps because of it), there seems to be an explosion in social judgment, roughly correlating with the surge in popularity of “reality” TV shows. I don’t naively assume that there’s a purely causal relationship, but if there is causation it is likely also symptomatic . Either way, we have become vicious in our policing and criticism of each other in every way imaginable, not the least of which is body policing. So even if you’ve limited your media intake (which is impossible to do completely), you will still be not only awash in these messages, but also judged by them. You can’t entirely escape it! Often, and even with the best of intentions, we are repeating the mantra to each other: “You’re not good enough, and it’s all your own fault!”
There is a enormous difference between realizing the harsh reality that the only way for some people to get better is to pull themselves up with brutal, agonizing effort, and the boorish attitude that turns this into a kind of idealistic dogma. I see most people going through life beating others over the head with this self-serving fallacy, telling themselves, “I would NEVER be like that.” We tell ourselves that we’re somehow better and forget all the privileges, all the encouragements, all the opportunities, and all the experiences that help to shape us and enabled us to make a few good choices for ourselves. We forget the bad choices as long as they didn’t have life changing consequences.
If you were to live someone else’s life from start to finish, you would not just become you with their life. You would become them. The failure to empathize is a failure of understanding, and it applies to everything. Many people in many ways are suffering at the brunt end of hurtful messages, not just with body image but also to race, class, sexual orientation, you name it!
This is not Sara’s failing!
This is a natural response to toxic ideas. Recognizing this does not make someone a victim. This is about how we think and why.
It means “thinking about thinking”. It’s the defining mechanism of self-awareness: the practice of being aware of one’s own thoughts. This is where our hope lies for betterment and healing. We can have the greatest of intentions and do more harm than good if we are not aware of ourselves.
Apart from just being there and listening (which is sometimes the greatest help), this self-awareness can enable us to manage what kind of messages we share both actively and passively. It can also give us greater capacity for compassion. When we learn to think about thinking, we can “step out” of ourselves and examine what might be desperate, dogmatic or destructive views and try to see things from someone else’s perspective. Nothing is more fundamental in the art of empathy.
In fact, one of the best things you could do for Sara right now is to start being kinder to yourself. Love your own body. Learn to speak nicely about it, and of others. Lead by example! You can’t tell someone else to love their body if you don’t love your own. It has no potency or meaning. If you struggle with doing so then just be candid about it. Share in the struggle and stand beside her.
Otherwise, if we are still carrying the bait ourselves, we are almost certain to pass it along.