Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Insidious messages

I didn't ask to see it. I gave no permission. The handsome, twinkly-eyed aspirational man on the billboard picture looks down at me, causing a vague sensation of self-discontent. Suddenly I am painfully aware that my teeth are slghtly crooked, that my battered old nose is a little askew, that my blond hair combines with these to conspire to prevent me aspiring to the desired "tall dark and handsome" ideal.
I am 43 and though extremely fit due to my activity levels, I am not anywhere near as taut as this honed body which imposes itself on my retina and hence my consciousness at some level. I did not ask to have this image thrust into my view and mind. My equilibrium is suddenly upset and the happy place that is the inside of my head is gatecrashed by an unwelcome image.

Aware of the tacit dishonesty of this picture, I am even so suddenly struck by a feeling of guilt, a pang of inadequacy.
I am slim, I can cycle 10 miles in half an hour or sometimes under. I do yoga most mornings. I go to the gym reglarly because I enjoy the space away from intellectual demands.
And yet, a picture on the front of a magazine makes me feel instantly lesser. The knowledge that the man in the depiction of this "ideal" does not exist as shown, does not help.
He may actually be lean, but we don’t see that he is not as sculpted as what we are shown. For their purposes, he must appear to represent perfection. Technology has been used to "enhance" the image: his shape and definition modified to fit parameters that evolution has installed in our brains for dominance, fertility, good genes.

And even if he does faithfully approximate this godlike physique, he is a model. He inhabits a world where superficiality is the driver. He does not have to stand all day at lathe or slob out tied to a desk, immobile for nine hours a day. His job is to jump in and out of taxis, whipping his shirt off for the camera, living on lean tuna and mineral water.
When I was that thin (due to being too poor to buy enough food to fuel my necessarily active lifestyle) I felt shit: I was run down, tired all time and had a permanent cold. Some fat is healthy.

But he doesn't need to do that. He just works out, tailors his diet to his abs and gets photographed.
And we see him in the newsagent, on the cover of “mens health” or similar and in our heads, expectations and inadequacies result.

Women have had this for years, exacerbating eating disorders and now it has reached men.
You would have thought we would have learned! All those anorexic waifs and bulimic daughters suffering from the expectations set by Cosmo, Vogue, Sex and the City. All the guilt!

And now men too. The second wrong failing to make the right. How do immunise my son? I can explain but how to tackle the pervasive influence? Be how you want my son! As with my daughter: You are beautiful! Don’t believe them!

I try to counteract the propaganda whilst being unable to entirely shake it off myself.

And so, I have another beer, savouring the taste. I look out approvingly at my non-aspirational old skoda octavia (60mpg if driven boringly) before heading to the kitchen wherein lies a marvellous stilton, olives and some home made bread.

And my abs may have a covering, indicating my love of good food and beer during those happy evenings when with friends, I praise the quality of the cheddar, bread and Old Speckled Hen.

But you know, I really do feel very good. Its not real, you know: people won't like you more if you are a sculpted Adonis, that shiny BMW won't make me cool and happy.

But what of appearance as a commodity?

If we could all choose exactly how we looked, what would we look like?
As one of the few people, or so it would seem, few, who has always been pretty happy with his appearance, I wonder often at the power exerted by our appearance: actual on others and perceived upon ourselves.
There is no doubt that appearance affects how people treat us and how well disposed, or otherwise, they are to us. Attractive people, judged on contemporary standards, earn more, are healthier than ugly people. Many studies have shown the benefits of being attractive.
Neither is attractiveness necessarily culturally defined. Much evidence points to certain criteria, such as facial symmetry, being hardwired in our brains. The tendencies of babies to smile more at pictures of symmetrical faces is just one study I could name.
The evolutionary basis of these seemingly innate parameters is cause for speculation, but such prejudices definitely can be seen to exist.
So, then, imagine if you will, a world where by some unspecified and risk free technique, we could all look exactly as we would like.
Would uniformity ensue? Symmetry, certainly would be seen as desirable, whether consciously or not. Would all women opt for long shapely legs, all men for big chests and biceps?
I suspect many would.
That being the case, how far would variability disappear? And if everyone tended toward a standard ideal, what would be the differences that we find to love; those characteristics that make us unique and lovable?
I wonder then, if this would be subject to the vagaries of fashion. Once every person had a chieved a “look”, would there then be pressure to look different in a new and innovative way? Would the common herd, with their perfect looks, be so passe and to be eschewed? Or is there an ideal which would be reached where everyone would happily remain. The former I think.

But its all about what other people think. As social animals, most of us care about this. Some actually don’t, but often they are oblivious to social cues and tend to spend a lot of time alone or in a tribe-of-no-tribe where everyone else is similarly oblivious.

So, given all of this, it is not surprising that advertising gets to us, moulds us to its will. Using carefully honed and cleverly tested approaches to inserting suggestions into our poor stone-age minds, it tells us what we need. And most of us are powerless to even question its presuppositions.

As I told my son, aged three when he said “We have to buy X washing powder! It gets your clothes really clean!”
“Do you think that is true or do you think they just want our money?”
A realisation occurred visibly in his little face which has persisted.
I may have created a cynic, but it’s a question worth asking frequently.

1 comment:

Tuna Blogger said...

My good man, you have discovered the secret of Tuna! Tuna, that, is as a metaphor for the mentality of buying and selling everything without regard to its value to society or any individual. If the buying and selling is not being done by someone who is seeking to make a profit, it is you (all of us) that is being bought and sold. Just consider the multitude of oatey wheatey ricey breakfast cereals on the store shelves and the insistent rivalry between the Colas.

Look out for Tuna!