Tuesday, August 10, 2010
On The Unattainable Perfection
(This post is mostly from here.)
The topic of this post is unattainable perfection as a moral imperative. Take the view of eating and exercise as a moral or religious enterprise or a competition as to who can get closest to an almost nonexistent thinness without dying, without dying EVER!
These are two very different ideas and putting them together looks like an oxymoron. But it is not, or if it is, then life is full of oxymorons (oxymora?).
The first idea is the Puritanical one, still quite common in this country, the idea of life as a moral struggle against temptations, a religious walk through nonreligious sins. Everything, I have noticed, can be twisted into a moral failure by some people, often by experts. Who was it who said that only in the United States it is the fault of the elderly that they die? Because clearly, if you try hard enough, if you are earnest enough, pure enough, you will live forever. And your body will look like that of a twenty-year old, forever, too. If it does not you have sinned, and perhaps the health insurance shouldn't cover your sinning.
Why does this anger me so? Partly because I'm using my red-hot anger as a source of energy, but mostly because such sermons make life really horrible for those most vulnerable to its seductions. For note that the people who read articles on good eating and good exercise and how to take care of your health are not those sedentary and overweight Americans who might benefit from the advice the most. They are also, and perhaps most likely, those Americans who are already too thin and who already overexercise.
I've thought similar thoughts on the many articles on "good mothering" and the awful consequences of neglectful mothering. I'm willing to bet quite a lot that the wrong people are affected by these articles, people who already try too hard and feel too much guilt, and that the people who actually might learn something useful from them (and this does not only mean mothers) will not read the articles or if they do are not affected by them.
What is it about pleasure and enjoyment of life that is so very bad? Think about it. If your daily meals can't give you enough pleasure, because they have become part of the Puritan "religion" of striving, where are you going to get your good feelings from? And if all you see when you look at your children are the many ways you might fail in bringing them up correctly (did you play enough Beethoven? did you eat a pickle while pregnant?), how are you going to enjoy them and the time you spend with them?
And if moving and exercising and dancing are not making you feel a little like one of God's little acrobats, because you are busy writing down your pulse rate and your calorie consumption, when are you ever going to feel that divine breath on your nostrils? Or take sex. If sex is all about counting weekly frequencies and how good your orgasms are, when are you going to have fun?
All this confuses the trip with its destination, and as none of us knows the destination, why not enjoy the trip?
My plea is for moderation, of course, not for becoming a morbidly ill couch potato. But I don't really see the urgings of the fitness and health industries as pleas for moderation, most of the time. There is a slippage towards one extreme or another, all the time. And come to think about it, "moderation" isn't the right word, either, because it conveys the idea of temptations successfully avoided. We need a better word for what I think of as living life as a human being, eating wonderful and healthy (and sometimes not-so healthy) food, moving enough for your body to stay limber, enjoying the gifts this can give you in pure enjoyment of life. We need a word that makes it quite clear being alive is not just a time given to you so that you can leave the stringiest body possible when you die. And die you will.
So much for the first paradoxical idea. The second one has to do with the role of all this in the lives of women, in particular, rather than in the lives of people, in general. There is a whole sub-genre of writings and programs aimed at making women feel in the need of improvement. This sub-genre serves firms very well, as a worried woman is more likely to buy that expensive face-cream or that educational toy for her child or that Victoria's Secret bra for her husband's ogling enjoyment. The guilt industry, I sometimes think it should be called.
The guilt industry works especially well in affecting women, because the sub-genre is not that novel. You read the Bible and find Eve at fault. You watch movies such as "Educating Rita" and you find women in need of improvement. You read fashion magazines and find your body needs fixing. You read articles on child psychology and find that you are walking across a mine-field where every wrong step will cause your child to become a drug abuser who will hate you, the mother in later life. You read anti-feminist writings and find that some argue that women shouldn't have been given the vote. You read other anti-feminist articles and find that women are already ruling the whole world and that this is destroying EVERYTHING. You read articles about women in Afghanistan getting killed by their families for the crime of having been raped by some strangers first. You read articles about how the selfish and uppity women in Europe refuse to have enough children to perpetuate the White Uberrace (and you wonder how much damage they would have done to those nonexistent children by forgetting to play Beethoven while pregnant). And so on.
It's one way of making a person into a pretzel. (And don't come in here giving me counterexamples or scolding me for my intemperance. I'm on a roll.) Even a woman can become a pretzel, and that is a painful process.
So what's the proper response? It's not that hard to see that on some subconscious level many women think that they can somehow prove that they are not so bad, that at least they, if not other women, can be good and upright and ordinary citizens. Maybe working on the body will help. Or committing to Motherhood. Or saying that YOU agree about how terrible other women are, but that YOU are one of the women with a mental penis. YOU are ok. You are not Anna Nicole Smith or Hillary Clinton or Condie Rice or Lindsay Lohan or any of those other nasty uppity women who for some reason are seen as a stand-in for all women.