Sports commentators sometimes tell us that “every athlete dies twice.” The first death comes when injury forces the star into retirement, the second comes some years later when his heart beats for the last time. But it’s not just athletes who suffer two deaths in a single lifespan; the same might well be said for the vast majority of sedentary Americans.
In this sense, the first death comes in middle school, when we begin to feel social exposure and the weight of social judgment. Suddenly, for the first time in our lives, we feel self-conscious. Other kids tease us about the odd proportions of our bodies and the look of our faces, our skin, our hair; cruel nicknames begin to circulate and cliques begin to form, all based on appearance. Looking in the mirror, we begin to fear that maybe we don’t look quite right; our faces and our bodies sure don’t look like the people on the TV or the models on the magazine covers. Shocked and even horrified, we conclude that there must be something wrong with us.
The effect goes beyond teenage insecurity and anxiety. Desperate to put a stop our exposure and the threat of humiliation, we begin to behave differently. We try to look cool and dress to fit in. But even more to the point, we also start restricting our body movements and physical expression. Physical movement means exposure and so we inhibit our bodies. If we’re good at sports or dance or something “official,” we might find an acceptable refuge for our physicality, but if not, we just hunker down and hide out. We stop playing and try to look dignified, whatever that means. For many, this marks the beginning of the end, the first step on the road to sedentary living, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. For many of us, this is our first death.
Of course, social anxiety doesn’t strike every middle-school student, nor does it account for every case of sedentary living in the modern world. There are plenty of people who have managed to maintain their physicality in spite of social pressure. But there’s a very real epidemic going on here, something we see played out every day in the modern adult world: people who are massively inhibited about moving their bodies in any public setting, people who simply refuse to express their innate physicality. Even apart from the downstream health consequences of sedentary living, this must be seen as a disease state in and of itself.
To make matters worse, modern media adds to this social pathology by stoking the fires of self-doubt and distorting our image of what “normal” looks like. Exceptional imagery reminds us of our physical inadequacies, thousands of times every day. But the media lies and they do it intentionally. The faces and bodies that appear in print, especially those associated with “health and fitness,” are neither average or normal. In fact, models are selected from a huge pool of prospects and photographed under ideal conditions. Then, when the perfect image is selected, the Photoshopping begins: every flaw is eliminated, every wrinkle is smoothed, every bulge and imperfection is wiped clean. The end result is something completely unreal and plastic, something that simply does not actually exist in the natural world.
This is not just a matter of graphic artists trying to make their publications look better. In fact, the images that finally make it to the magazine cover are intentional distortions, designed from scratch to fuel our sense of inadequacy. Marketers and advertisers are well aware of our so-called “pain points.” As they see it, their job is to create unhappiness and fuel our discontent, all in order that we might buy their products. This effort is completely deliberate and premeditated. If people feel insecure about their bodies and their lives, so much the better. And in this respect, health and fitness glossies are actually a powerful health negative.
And so our challenge: If we’re ever going to come to peace with our bodies and create a physically authentic lifestyle, it’s essential that we free ourselves from peer pressure and the artificial imagery we see in print and on screen. In short, we need to escape the glossy magazine trap and start looking at real people, face-to-face.
When we turn away from the glossies, we begin to realize that the vast, overwhelming majority of us look nothing like cover models. In fact, most of us are well, “funny looking.” We’ve got asymmetrical features, blotchy skin, odd dimensions and ungainly movements. In short, we are beautiful individuals.
Being funny looking is not an exception; it is the norm, a human universal. Exceptional-looking people, in their non-Photoshopped state, are rare. And while they might well be nice to look at on occasion, their appearance does not qualify them to be models for how we ought to live. We should not aspire to be like them, nor should we feel inadequate when we aren’t.
And while we’re at it, we would also do well to give our mirrors a closer look. Except for practical grooming, mirrors are a distraction and a major source of unhealthy self-consciousness. Remember, mirrors are a very recent human invention. The vast majority of people who have ever lived have had very little idea of what they looked like. Just imagine going through your entire life, never having to sweat your appearance or worry about what people think. Imagine how liberating that would be. Take your mirrors down and feel the freedom that comes with it.
Remember too that moving your body during the course of the day is a natural act and our birthright. When you take it upon yourself to move your body within eyeshot of other people, you are not the strange one. You are not deviant. You are normal; you are simply doing what your body wants.
So it’s time to get over our inhibitions. Yes, you are funny looking. So am I. So are your friends and your co-workers.
So stop with the glossies and the TV. Stop with the mirrors.
Stop worrying about what other people think.
Start moving your body for the sheer pleasure of it.
You are beautiful.