Thursday, December 9, 2010

Guilt is Good

One of the hazards of ascribing to a certain philosophy that shall remain nameless is that you tend to spend about as much time defending against your supposed defenders as you do against your attackers. That's what happens when you redefine words like "selfishness" and "integrity", and you can't go ten minutes without using the adjective "metaphysical.'

A great example of this problem is the "self-esteem" movement of the 90s. Or maybe before the 90s, I don't really know. But I definitely noticed it in the 90s when my 3rd grade teacher told me there was no wrong way to spell "indubitibly", squiggly red line be damned. Thanks to her, I have almost zero spelling skills and an uncanny ability to believe that I am right about everything.

As a ----ist, I am a huge fan of self-esteem. Like, the hugest. You might say I consider it a non-optional value even. But I am also a huge, huge enemy of the self-esteem movement. Similarly I am generally an enemy of guilt, at least guilt of the Judeo-Christian or other unearned variety. I don't want anyone to feel guilty for existing, or using fossil fuels, or exhaling greenhouse gasses. I don't even want you to feel guilty for walking past the bell-ringing Santa Claus or being annoyed when your bus has to stop for an extra 45 seconds to let a wheelchair board. Overall I would probably reduce global guilt levels by 95% or more.

The supposed supporters of "self-esteem", however, want to wipe guilt from the human emotional spectrum. They don't want you to feel any guilt at all about anything ever, which is a big problem, because sometimes guilt is exactly what you should feel. Guilt is a normal, healthy emotional response when you do something wrong, specifically when you take some action that undermines your values, or fail to take some action that promotes them. It's the accumulation of the regret, remorse, and disappointment that comes from acting against your goals, and its purpose is to get you back on track. Removing the ability to feel guilt makes about as much sense as removing the ability to feel pain. Just ask a naked mole rat how well that works out.

I recently read an article in a magazine that pretends to offer up intellectual content as well as pictures of shoes. The article was about a trio of supposedly influential female bloggers I've never heard of who write about diet and exercise. They basically run a lot, eat small amounts of South Beach-approved foods, and document it all online. Whether this is meant to inspire or shame lesser beings who occasionally eat french fries and have been known to skip the gym is unclear, but basically it's your standard, run-of-the-mill diet and exercise journal, just made public instead of shamefully hidden.

The author's disdain for these women is palpable. It practically drips off the page. It hints that these women's habits are unhealthy, possibly bordering on anorexia. One of them runs ten miles per day and eats a salad for dinner, for a total daily caloric intake of 1200 calories, if her blog is to be believed. Another "indulges" in a "brownie" made of black beans and sour cream for "dessert."

And your point? I mean, that sounds kind of lame and it's certainly not the lifestyle for me, but that doesn't prove it's an invalid choice. The author does get a quick quote from some doctor claiming that 1200 calories are not quite enough for someone so active, but he doesn't outright call it "unhealthy" nor does he recommend milkshakes as a better diet option than pseudo-brownies.

No, the real problem, according to the article, is that blogs like these might make readers feel guilty for eating an entire bag of Tootsie Rolls and watching the dust collect on their treadmill. And the author has a point. Who are these bloggers to be dedicated, driven, and successful? Who are they to flaunt their progress, making the rest of us feel inferior by contrast?

I'm beyond fed up with complaints about our culture's "impossible" standards of beauty. What does that even mean? Are we expecting women to have two heads and breathe underwater? Does the Miss America Pageant require prehensile tails? That would be fantastic, but no.

Standards are standards because they are hard to reach, but that doesn't mean they are impossible, as evidenced by the many seasons of ANTM and the fact that models are not robots. And P.S., it is not always about health. It's not even mostly about health. Very few of us find our lives immediately threatened by what we eat (or don't eat). For most of us, it's about looking good naked. For a few of us, it's about looking good on camera, which is in many ways more difficult.

That's really all we need to be concerned about in the modern world. We don't need to run from mastodons or fight cave bears anymore (paleo dieters, I'm looking at you). We just need to look pretty. Or not, honestly. Whatever you want, just don't expect Vogue to run photos of your love handles.

So there are some blogs out there helping more women get tiny little stick figures. More power to them, I say. If that's what you value, get to it. And if you fuck it up by eating donuts for breakfast, wallow in your well-earned guilt.

If anyone should understand this, by the way, it should be the magazine that only features women over 5' 9" and under 120 lbs. on its illustrious pages. But who are we kidding? Hypocrisy is the new black.

Ever yours,

S. Misanthrope

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