Don't be fooled by the radio, the TV, or the magazines…

“…They’ll show you photographs of how your life should be.  But they’re just someone else’s fantasy.”

Greta Christina, who has seen me at a low point in my battle with anorexia nervosa, sent me an article yesterday.  So often we see models selling us makeup or weight-lifting equipment under the pretense that if we just exerted a little more effort (and bought their products), we too could be beautiful (and get the house with the pool and the drop-dead gorgeous member of the opposite sex that comes with it in the commercials).  The article talks about what male models must actually put themselves through for their appearance, and it involves much more than living at the gym.  Many of them shorten their lives through extreme dehydration and harm their brains from glycogen deprivation.

I was thinking about this subject today when I saw that a friend of mine had updated her facebook status from class.

According to my class, people tend to want to be friends with the same level of physical attractiveness, and shy people do not like to be friends with non-shy people. Interesting. Good thing all my friends are HAWT!

We are a social species, which means companionship is one of the things that makes life a real treat rather than just a continuous search for food and water.  ‘Companionship’ has several facets, from friendship to sex.  Most people have friendship covered – all you have to do is find people similar to yourself, and there’s a lot of people out there.  Sex, on the other hand, is another thing.  Psychology has repeatedly confirmed the obvious: people who engage in human contact often and who have intercourse regularly, are happier people.

There are a whole host of virtues that should be the doorway to sex: honesty, compassion, intelligence, the list goes on.  Yet we’re told, both explicitly and implicitly, that those things are secondary, often even irrelevant, when pitted against the physical aspects of attraction.  When was the last time you watched a movie where the romantic lead was only moderately physically attractive, but was super smart and unfailingly kind, with those qualities being enough to sell their worth as the love interest of the protagonist?  If they exist, they are certainly very few.  Who would believe that those qualities meant anything without the physical aspect?

Perhaps this is the way our culture has been built so that companies can sell us desire in a bottle or in a box of hair dye, but I’m inclined to think it’s just the way human beings are.  I speak in generalities, of course, since I myself am a sapiosexual (I find intellect more attractive than anything), so there are always exceptions.  But for the most part, human beings seem to be as shallow as any of the species from which we are descended.  It’s why attractive women receive more gifts from men.  If the true measure of a person’s worth is how they treat someone who can do them absolutely no good, it’s a test that most of us fail when faced with beauty.  That people tend to be friends with those of similar levels of physical attractiveness doesn’t surprise me.  Is it any mystery then, that people will go to even self-destructive means to achieve physical beauty?

I’m not mad at anybody who is shallow – we can’t change what we find attractive any more than we can change what elements we breathe.  But there’s a part of me, the idealist part of me, that is hacked off at existence itself for this unpleasant facet of the human condition.  What can I say?  I strongly dislike unfairness and Nature, she sometimes corners the market on it.  Lots of great people, in terms of what qualities truly make a person great, are often confined to a life of little human contact, while an idiot or an ass might never be deprived if only they are good-looking enough.  This often produces feelings of hopelessness and desperation.  It’s why people will believe they can have the bodies these models are selling us, even though the scent of bullshit is nearly suffocating.  We so badly want anything that might mean a solution to physical loneliness.  Most of us are loved, but for some reason that’s often not enough.  As biological creatures, it seems we need to be wanted.  Most of us have learned at one time or another in our lives that love in not always an engine of desire, but here are companies telling us we can have the desire our personalities alone have failed to generate in just 6 weeks at 20 minutes a day, or if we apply their brand of lipstick, or purchase their dress.

It’s all very cynical, and I hope I’m wrong about all of it.  One of the pains in the ass about reality is that it doesn’t generally conform to our sense of wishful thinking the way fantasies and religions do.

This is all on my mind because today I had a panic attack, my first in 7 weeks.  I was at a swimming people packed with people who looked like the only time they’d left the gym in their lives was to go swimming today and all the symptoms came flooding back: dry mouth, heavy breathing, dry heaving/vomiting, aversion to food, etc.  I took my pulse and it was at 120 bpm while sitting.  I looked in the mirror and I saw an image so obese that it couldn’t possibly be me (and am grateful I’m still well enough to be aware of that fact).  When in the grips of these attacks, I just want it to stop so badly, and even though I know it’s bullshit, I’m tempted to try the next miracle drug or workout machine.  And even though I know those models starve their brains to achieve that look for a single day, I find myself envious of the men that torture themselves to be in those images.  I want to run away to the gym and try to be one of them.

Thank FSM that I’m healthy enough upstairs that such temptations only last a moment.  If we hold ourselves to unattainable standards, we’re committing ourselves to a frustrating and unhappy life.  I wish we could all remember that we can work to improve ourselves, but to let that be enough without needing perfection.  I wish I could remember that all the time.  Thankfully, I have an amazing coterie of friends who has looked after me and forced me to get help – and who also manage to sometimes make me feel beautiful in spite of my condition.  Because of them (and because of a little pill courtesy of the scientific method), I can lead a normal life on most days now.  Today I’ll be doing good to hit 1200 calories, but tomorrow I think I’ll be better.  I’m glad it’s a hiccup rather than a daily obsession as it used to be.

As my friend Natasha said, these are reminder scares, not setbacks.  You’re never really cured, you’re just vigilant and on top of the condition trying to live as normally as possible.  Sorry if this post is disjointed, I just wanted to get my thoughts down.  It’s just such a pity that beauty is so often more tied to your body fat percentage rather than your ideas or your charity.

Update and pics from #AACon15. MST3K cast members were at my talk.
MENTAL ILLNESS: Today's session.
PERSONAL: Happy birthday, Hitch.
PERSONAL: Mid day lab pics from the wife.
About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Gayle Jordan

    Precious boy –

    Thank you for sharing such an intimate and personal piece of your life. I am sorry you struggle so with this. It’s hard for me to understand and believe you have these issues, because in my eyes, you are spectacular and special and gifted and strong and smart and beautiful. I’m so glad you’ve gotten help medically, and that you’ve surrounded yourself with people who love and support you.

    We love you…looking forward to TAM – E wants to show you Vegas the right way. Buckle up. Dinner at Joe’s. Trust me.

    Keep writing. Keep rocking. Keep thinking. Keep talking. Keep singing.

    We heart you.


  • Kay

    The article was definitely interesting. The models essential “shrink-wrap” their skin around their musculature to give the appearance of being more fit. The extreme binging and dieting and fluid deprivation truly frightened me; I had a minor seizure in high school due to dehydration, and it was a frightening experience.

    I am sorry to hear about your panic attack. And your friend Natasha is right: it isn’t a setback. I hope you aren’t too disheartened by it, and continue your upward and onward motion in confronting this illness. As always, you know where to find me if you need to talk :).

  • Tasida

    Fuck. I don’t have a TV, but if I did, I’d be really tempted to throw something through it right now.

    I mean, to think that you have to look like one of those muscle models to be sexually desired seems beyond absurd. But, then, I think through my own thoughts and feelings about my body. I myself have felt mild disgust when looking at my stomach and rear end and thighs. Especially after gaining five to ten pounds over an academically rigorous, snow drenched winter. Especially when trying on swimsuits under fluorescent lights.

    And I have these thoughts even though I don’t have a TV, even though I remember wanting to be a scientist when I grew up, not a princess. I have these thoughts in spite of being cynical of advertising for as long as I can remember, in spite of knowing the images I see are not true even to the models they depict, in spite of always having a proper feminist suspicion of popular female beauty standards, in spite of limiting my grooming ritual to what can fit on a medicine cabinet shelf, and in spite of being told I’m “hot” on at least a weekly basis anyways. In spite of all that, I still sometimes grab a fistfull of fat, shake it at the mirror, and think, “Yuck. Who would want a piece of that?”

    So, then, it becomes much less absurd that such thoughts can lead become destructively obsessive, especially for men. As ubiquitous as feminine beauty standards are, at least anyone with even a mordicum of liberal education is aware of how unrealistic and potentially destructive those standards are. We are aware of how female models go through insane diets, workouts, and hours of makeup, then get photoshopped anyways before being splashed all over creation. We aren’t as aware of how ubiquitious, unrealistic, or potentially destructive masculine beauty standards are, or at least I wasn’t.

    So, I’m angered all over again at how people wanting to sell crap have convinced perfectly normal, healthy people that they are not good enough. Damn, JT. To think that someone as articulate, thoughtful, and hansome as you would worry he couldn’t find someone wonderful with whom to be intimate, is just insane. But then in my gut, I feel just how plausible such insecurities can be, and I want to go shit on a corporate media mogul’s lawn.

    So, yeah. What Gayle and Kay said. Thank you for sharing. And from one sapiophile to another, yes, I think you are being just a little cynical.

  • Russell P

    Sometimes I’ve found that people spend their entire lives struggling with symptoms and trying to hide them. It’s a full time job with little time left over to deal with the root issue. For instance, why do we compare ourselves to other people? What exactly is it about other people that we find so intimidating? I think sometimes it’s easier to concentrate on forgetting self than to compare yourself to others. To somehow recapture that ‘something’ we gave up as kids when we suddenly realized there were other people in the world. Our reaction at that moment set our course for life unless altered by great strength of will.

  • Casimir

    JT, thanks a lot for posting this. It’s something I really needed to read. I’ve spent the last few days watching YouTube videos from the last three Skepticons and really enjoyed your insightful, acerbic and cutting cross-examinations of ridiculous beliefs, so I was doubly surprised to see you write an article like this when I checked out your blog.

    I can’t say I’ve ever experienced an eating disorder, although I do know I’ve spent the majority of my life with an intense self-loathing of my body and paranoid fear of being seen without clothes on even by people I consider myself rather close to. And I know that, as a man, society expects me not to care about such things, that to express any sort of concern or self-consciousness about your body is a sign of weakness and improper “manliness.” All of this illustrates just how pervasive and corrosive institutionalized sexism is in our culture, and I wish I had the confidence and fortitude of mind to realize it’s pointless to uphold yourself to an entirely manufactured standard of acceptable appearance. Although, as you pointed out, the media does a great job of telling us otherwise.

    Thanks for showing that the solution to this issue, like so many others, is, above all, a voice of reason.

  • Larry

    I don’t know how you gals do it. You may be surprised at how many men find make-up to be superficial and al natural and intellect very sexy.

  • Tasida

    Personally, I don’t. I’ve got better things to do.

  • kate h

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’ve only been exposed to these kind of discussions with other women, so it’s easy to genderize this issue as female only when it’s not.

    As someone who has struggled with being overweight my whole adult life, I totally sympathize. The panic I feel when I think that people are looking at me and judging me is awful – but doesn’t rise to the level of panic attack for me (thank goodness).

    In college I went on a date with a guy and had an okay time. He called me the next night to talk to me about how successfully asking me out gave him the courage to ask the girls he really wanted to date out. I was just a test case because I wasn’t attractive enough to date regularly – too chubby and too plain. He seemed totally miffed when I got angry with him – after all he was just being honest and telling me the things every guy who saw me thought. Do I have to say that he was an aspiring plastic surgeon?

    That was my total nightmare, and I was lucky that my second thought after OMFG! was to reject his belief that every guy who saw me thought the same thing. I knew funny, kind, and all around great guys who would never think like that. Having my worst fear happen helped me see how I was really afraid of being judged by total assholes, and why on earth do I care what they think anyway?

    Not that in the end it is that simple. I still find myself negatively judging my body and looks whenever I think people are looking at me – it kind of jerks me out of being in my own head and into a space where I am trying to see myself through other (apparently jerky) people’s eyes. But the moment and the thoughts pass and I don’t dwell on it like I used to. My self doubt isn’t gone but it no longer rules my identity.

  • James Croft

    You’re extremely brave to discuss this in a public forum and you deserve plaudits for it. The more individuals like you who are willing to live their lives openly, the more humane society we will create.

    Thank you.

  • Gordon

    In the movie The Invention of Lying the romantic lead is Ricky Gervais, who does not look like a swimwear model.