I want to talk about the belly outfit Lady Gaga wore during the Super Bowl LI half-time show.
In other words, I want to talk about body shaming.
I knew the Internet wouldn't let her flaunt her non-chiseled bare belly on stage.
I knew this because the first thought I had when I saw her on stage in the belly outfit was, “Why would she wear that?”
I'm not proud to admit that's what I thought, even though I didn't think what I thought for the reasons you're thinking.
untwist your tongue, son
You probably imagine me being on the verge of body shaming.
HOW DARE SHE SHOW THAT TUMMY FLAB. ALL WOMEN SHOULD HAVE A FLAT STOMACH.
THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE, LETTING WOMEN KNOW THAT IT'S OKAY FOR THEM TO BE LESS THAN PERFECT.
But I'm not.
Lady Gaga is not fat. Not at all. Calling her fat is stupid. I didn't question her outfit because I thought she was fat, nor did I question her outfit because I thought she needed to change her body.
Her body is “normal.”
And, well, that's the problem.
By any and all first impressions, I'm a thoroughbred body shamer.
I'm a tall white male. I'm not fat. I have muscle definition. If you saw me on the street, you'd peg me as a body shamer. No doubt.
But my psyche has been simmering in body shame stew ever since I was eight years old.
I used to lie to my friends in order to get out of going to pool parties. I was terrified of what they'd say about my body.
My ego's backbone was shimmed with shame for ten years…
…and then I started eating better. I started deadlifting. I started doing things to change the parts of me I didn't like.
I went from a
self-loathing skinny-fat nerd
less self-loathing (but still pretty self-loathing) nerd with a lean, muscular, athletic physique.
And as someone that's rode the wave of body shame to shore (somewhat) safely, my feelings on body shaming are torn in two.
Expectations are everything.
Expectations are why a guy like Tiger Woods is doomed if he cheats on his wife, and why a guy like Charlie Sheen is doomed if he doesn't cheat on his wife.
Body shaming's roots are twisting throughout our expectations.
And our expectations of what a body should look like are informed by a variety of mediums (movies and magazines — anything and everything “media”) that I collective refer to as “beauty culture.”
The idea of a “normal” body and the idea of a “perfect” body are subjective, especially in relation to beauty. People like different flavors for reasons not totally understood.
But we can spiral into a vague idea of today's “perfect” because beauty culture does an insane amount of market research in order to find out what we find attractive.
They then use the data to advertise to us.
THEY GIVE US EXACTLY WHAT WE WANT
and whether you're willing to admit to it or not
THEY KNOW WHAT WE LIKE MORE THAN WE KNOW WHAT WE LIKE
and that's the Truth.
This is how the capitalist world works. When there's a demand for x, some people are smart enough to recognize (and supply) the demand.
But here's the problem:
Beauty culture takes it one step further. They take what we like, and then make it even more “perfect” (read: less realistic) using a variety of tools, the most heinous one being Photoshop.
(Google “magazine photoshop fails” and see more of the absurdity for yourself.)
Photoshopping and computer enhancing in order to alter (hide) reality is a terrible thing to do. There's no arguing that. But Photoshopping is just one of many rocks you'll hit if you roll down the rabbit hole of beauty realism.
What about makeup? What about good lighting? Nice scenery? What about picture angle? Posing? Color correcting?
All of these things skew “reality.”
Below are two pictures of me. They were taken within a two minute time span. The left uses a bad angle (on purpose). There's no posing. Bad lighting. The right uses a better angle, better posing, and better lighting.
Of course, I'm going to post the better looking one on social media. Just like everyone does.
We have the power to edit reality.
And we do edit it regularly.
Why does any of this matter?
Our brain isn't perfect. It's not good at distinguishing between real and fake.
For instance, if I asked you what America was like back in 1492 when Columbus was sailing the ocean blue, you'd probably tell me something…
…even though you have absolutely no clue what America was really like. you weren't alive back then. you didn't experience it.
You'd use what you've read in books and what you've seen movies to piece together your own version of reality, and you'd be pretty convinced this was how things really were.
When we see magazines covers (or digitally enhanced scenes in movies) we don't filter them through a fake funnel.
The story we end up telling ourselves about body shape and body size is informed by fantasy because a lot of what we see is computer generated.
And we don't consciously autocorrect for the fact that what we're seeing is staged and, for all intents and purposes, “fake.”
We end up comparing the things see in real life to things that don't exist.
In this respect, beauty culture is setting the bar insanely high — in the heavens.
TV takes away our freedom to have whatever thoughts we want. So do photographs, movies, and the Internet. They provide us with more intellectual stimuli, but they construct a lower, harder intellectual ceiling.
-Chuck Klosterman, On Media And Culture
This is a problem.
So let's go ahead and recreate beauty culture. Let's nix Photoshop and digital enhancements.
You're left with (a) models. The genetically elite, the right side of the bell curve. The people that won't have cellulite. Ever.
You're left with (b) purposeful posing. An sculptor uses contrapposto to make a visual statement.
You're left with (c) professional photographers. An expert eye for framing the foreground with the background. People that understand and use the rule of thirds.
You're left with (d) awesome (or staged) lighting. Overhead lighting turns a stomach into a six pack set of abs.
You're left with (e) people that are willing to do things most people aren't in order to build and maintain an above average body.
You're left with…
Point being that, even with more ethical strategies, beauty culture sets still sets the beauty bar through the roof.
our perception of “normal” would still be fucked sideways. Less sideways, yes. But, still, sideways.
The question is this: do you still have beef with this more ethical beauty culture?
A lot of people would. Because little changes. It still creates an unrealistic expectation of what females (and males) should look like.
But here's the deal:
LADY FUCKING GAGA PERFORMED AT THE SUPERBOWL.
Do you see what I'm saying?
No. You don't.
So hold onto your chair because
We are all shamers, whether we realize it or not. (We don't.)
Lady Gaga isn't stupid. She didn't accidentally wear what she wore. She knew it would cause a shit storm. She wanted it to cause a shit storm.
She knew Twitter would talk, and she knew she would be rewarded for being an “honest” woman. For not being afraid of showing the world what a “normal” woman looks like.
Which is commendable.
Because it's a sentiment unique to beauty and body. And this what makes body shaming so damn unique and impossible (did I give my conclusion away?) to fix.
Imagine if Tom Brady was holding the Super Bowl MVP trophy and then burst into song, only to say, “I just wanted to let the world know what a real voice actually sounds like.”
It wouldn't make sense.
We don't listen to “regular” music or watch “regular” movies to keep our expectations in check.
We don't celebrate “decency” in any other art form, which is why we don't remember 99% of the people that've been on American Idol.
We even like it when (some) singers alter their voice (the Photoshopping of music!??!?!?!!!?) to make their tunes catchier.
Because, by and large, when it comes to “art,” we EXPECT and (usually) accept nothing less than a Purple Cow.
And that's what a Purple Cow symbolizes:
Something worth remarking (talking) about.
Purple Cows are remarkable.
We want Purple Cows and we celebrate them in the art and entertainment industries.
Lady Gaga is a Purple Cow, which is why no one was surprised to hear she got the Super Bowl gig. She's “unrealistic” and few people can do what she does.
So why are we surprised (and upset) when beauty culture showcases “unrealistic” bodies of males and females?
“It's not fair. It skews expectations.”
Well, guess what?
EVERY PURPLE COW DOES.
Lady Gaga sets the entertainment bar through the roof. Why is it okay for singers, actors, and artists to slave over their craft (and abuse drugs) in order to give us the ultimate entertainment experience?
Why is it NOT okay for a model to do the same to give us the ultimate visual experience? Why are models unhealthy if they're trying to create a certain “Purple Cow” aesthetic appeal?
That's why they are Purple Cows.
I'm not saying this phenomenon is right or wrong or good or bad. I'm just saying that it IS…
…and also pointing out some inconsistencies in our (domain dependent) logic.
And it's precisely our domain dependence that makes this really confusing.
We don't compare artists to non-artists in any domain, save for when it comes to the body and beauty.
We understand that a singer practices and bleeds to sing better. We understand that the “joes” won't be on the level of the “pros.”
We understand “pros” take it to level most of us won't and SHOULDN'T unless we're IN the game.
And if the pro-joe illusion isn't enough, there's no other world where “above averageness” is shat upon more than in beauty culture.
Those forgotten American Idol singers? They're forgotten, but they probably weren't shamed.
If Tom Brady DID burst out in song and and his singing was above average. Most people would be impressed.
=+= news flash =+=
Lady Gaga's body IS above average. she has less body fat than MOST women.
Yet she's still flushed down the toilet.
You ready for more reasons to hate me?
I kicked this thing off by saying my feelings about body shaming are torn in two.
Taking care of your body is an insanely difficult thing to do. Its an “art” and should be seen as an art.
For us “joes” to rag on people in beauty culture because they are Purple Cows is just as illogical for us to rag on Lady Gaga for being good at what she does.
Body shaming isn't cool, and it's rather nonsensical. You wouldn't go up to someone on the street that's never practiced singing and shame their musical ability…
…unless, of course, they were out in public and subjecting others to their noise.
In which case, we can say that, you increase your chances of cultural commentary if you “put yourself out there” on a public stage.
If you walk around your neighborhood, singing at the top of your lungs, and you're not a good singer, I hate to break it to you, but your neighbors are going to talk about you.
Likewise, if you walk around in clothes (or without clothes) that show off your physique, and you aren't a premier physical specimen, your neighbors are going to talk about you.
The less Purple you are, the more vulnerable you are to cultural criticism ESPECIALLY if you voluntarily present yourself in a public format.
Gaga opened the door the moment she wore what she wore.
“She's there to sing and dance. She's not there for her looks. It's not fair to judge her for her looks.”
Then why did she have to change outfits a million times? Why were there fireworks, drones, and dancers? Why wasn't Lady Gaga hiding in a box and singing a capella?
The visual aspects of music entertainment are like the intellectual aspects of Miss America. They might not be the main course, but they're certainly on the dinner plate.
(Speaking of which, I remember everyone and their mother making fun of Lauren Kaitlin for her intellect during Miss Teen USA 2007. Why can we clown on intellect, but not beauty? Why is it satisfying when an attractive human is dumb?)
This IS shitty of me to say because the implications are whack mack titty back give a cog a drone.
(a) people that don't have a Purple Cow body need to walk around in thick sweaters to save everyone's eyeballs.
(b) people that don't have a Purple Cow face need to wear babushkas at all times.
Not cool, right?
I'm not saying that's how things should be, but, rather, pointing out that that's how they are in different domains.
And we don't bat an eye.
Everyone and their mother made from of William Hung for his American Idol performance. But it's the same thing.
A guy took a chance, put himself out there on a public stage, and people talked because he didn't meet our expectations. Our “subjective” cultural expectations.
Trying to conclude this, I swear. It's not working, but I'm trying.
So in an effort to begin concluding this rant of mine, we can say that:
If you put yourself out there in a public format and “showcase” your “talent,” then you're opening the doors for criticism and commentary.
You might not think you're “showcasing” your “talents” when you wear that one outfit, but that's the cultural perception.
A lot of people are upset that this has become the cultural perception, so they rage against culture itself.
“IT'S BEAUTY CULTURE'S FAULT FOR CREATING UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS!”
WE CAN and SHOULD create a more ethical beauty culture. Stop with the Photoshop shenanigans, yes.
Show us what goes on behind the scenes. Because then we can SEE the dedication, the hard work. We can see level of commitment. We can see the stack of skunked pictures that didn't make the cut. The crew of people telling the model how to pose. The sixteen lamps creating optimal shadowing.
Maybe that'll help our brain realize that modeling is akin to “acting” and an art in itself.
But, even with those changes, the beauty bar will still be high. And that's okay.
Eliminating beauty culture all together is just a grandiose game of self-deception.
Don't highlight attractive males and females because it makes the rest of us look bad. Dismiss all of the hard work these people do stay in shape because it makes us look bad.
While we're at it, let's ban Lady Gaga from being an entertainer because she makes other entertainers look bad.
Let's ban Louis C.K. from being a comedian because he makes other comedians look bad.
Let's ban anyone that's good at anything because it makes everyone else look bad.
People work really hard to get good at what they do, and that's why they're really good.
The realities of reality are real things that we don't like to reel in.
Pinning the problem on beauty culture is the norm, and for good reason: it deserves some of the pins.
But I don't think the proposed changes will be implemented anytime soon because
REALITY IS BORING
which is why movies and books are edited one million times to eliminate excess; they're crafted to captivate our wonky attention spans.
A true thing, poorly expressed, is a lie.
– Stephen Fry (maybe)
Hardcore social media users take thirty-five selfies before posting one, adjusting their hair, the lighting, and the angle with each subsequent shot.
(I'm guessing you've done this before. Don't get all pious on me now.)
And the real problem with blaming beauty is this: it implies that the only way to overcome body shaming is by fixing beauty culture itself, which is an
solution. “There's something wrong with the world, the world needs to change.” But this is a terrible way to live because it insinuates that you have NO control.
A better way to handle body shaming is with
solutions. Because, in today's world, everyone has a voice. Expressing opinions is easier than ever, which is both empowering and infuriating.
Everyone should be free to share their opinions, but not everyone's opinion should count.
You have the choice to decide what's signal and what's noise.
SO… DON'T GET STUNG BY AN IMAGINARY BEE
If someone makes fun of my drawings, I'm not going to get mad. I'm not an artist. I've never tried to be a professional artist.
If you don't care about how you look and you've never tried to change, then why get insulted?
You can avoid putting yourself in a position where you'd be more subjected to cultural commentary.
But if you think that's a limiting way to live life, then you do have one weapon available to you: go numb.
If you want to “showcase” your “talents” and your “talents” aren't high (on a cultural grading system), you have to numb yourself to the commentary. Or, better yet, embrace the commentary.
SO… APPLY A SITG FILTER
Talk is cheap. There are no consequences when you give an opinion, meaning you're likely to give too many opinions about things you shouldn't be giving opinions about.
This is where Skin in the Game comes into play.
Skin in the Game is a concept I stole from Nassim Taleb's book, Antifragile.
In a nutshell, it means: put your money where your mouth is. So if you're ready and willing to dish out an opinion about how someone looks, you need to be willing to subject yourself to the same criticism.
This is enlightening.
Remember William Hung? Lauren Kaitlin? Most of the people making fun of Hung never sung in front of an audience. Most of the people making fun of Kaitlin were never in her shoes.
So you can use the SITG filer to say that, if someone is trying to shame you without also putting themselves into the public eye for scrutiny, then their commentary is empty and useless.
When you use a SITG filter, you don't get many haters. The people that are worth listening to have much more empathy.
I know how difficult it is to keep a low body fat. I know what it's like to tax my body. So when I see Lady Gaga doing a 10+ minute performance (that she had to memorize), where she's simultaneously singing and dancing and not falling flat on her face in high heels, what comes to my head is,
“She's in incredible shape. And she's doing amazing things. I can't even get these Doritos into my mouth without turning 95% of my surface area orange.”
By the way, a SITG filer can and should extend beyond one single domain. Meaning you can't comment on her body unless you can also sing, dance, and perform like she can.
This doesn't limit what you can give an opinion on. But it does limit the amount of things you can give a valid opinion on.
SO… CHANGE YOURSELF
If these perceptual rewiring filters don't work, you can also work on yourself. If you don't like how you look, you can change.
If you really, deep down, don't like your body and you want to change for YOU, then don't use body shaming as a veil.
I think I found what's most important.
I didn't know where this was going when I first started writing. I had some ideas floating in my head.
Beauty culture is an art.
The industry of beauty culture is broken.
Beauty culture does need fixed, but that won't inherently solve anything.
The expectations won't change.
The best solutions are internal solutions.
But there was one idea that came to me as I wrote this. An idea I never considered before.
It reminds me of a Louis C.K. bit.
I was on an airplane and there was Internet — high speed Internet — on the airplane. That's the newest thing that I know exists. And I'm sitting on the plane and they go, “Open up your laptop you can go on the Internet.”
And it's fast. And I'm watching YouTube clips. It's amazing. I'm in an airplane. And…then it breaks down. And they apologize the Internet's not working.
The guy next to me goes, “Pffft. This is bullshit.”
Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only ten seconds ago.
– Louis C.K.
Body shamers believe the world owes them a visually stimulating experience.
They believe they deserve something merely as a result of their existence, and only as a result of their existence.
And if that doesn't sound shitty enough for you to reconsider any and all body shaming, well —
Shame on you.
(Did I do it right?)