Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: narcissism

Body Beautiful

Not long after you’ve created your profile on an internet dating website, you begin to notice certain archetypes among the selection on display. There are the people who have clearly been burned in the past: “I don’t want someone who PLAYS GAMES!” they whine. “I want someone who KNOWS WHO THEY ARE, WHO HAS A GOOD HEAD ON THEIR SHOULDERS, WHO’S NOT GOING TO STAND ME UP, LEFT WAITING FOR THEM, SITTING AT THE STARBUCKS, ON CHURCH STREET, BY MYSELF LIKE, A DOUCHE!” Poor dears don’t realize that their catharsis about past dates may scare off future ones.

Then there are the middle-aged people who have a picture twenty years old (I see this more with straight people than the gays). Soft-lighting, SEARS portrait backdrops, feathered bangs, handlebar moustaches or linebacker shoulder pads: it doesn’t take a student of fashion history, hair styling or photographic technology to recognize a picture is from 1983. You learn to be weary of those whose pictures are too flattering, all sucked-in cheeks and airbrushing, while conversely a sad-sack screenshot taken in a basement, lit poorly by an IKEA desk lamb, is just as troubling.

It has long-bothered me that some people define their potential date’s race (and let’s be clear, they almost always want ‘white’). No matter how politely they try to put it (“Sorry, dudes, only interested in white guys. No offense!”) the idea of pre-emptively rejecting a whole group of people based on their ethnicity makes me pretty uncomfortable. Then, there is the added concern of how you would feel to see yourself eliminated from meeting a potential date because of something like that. The person who wrote the profile might defend themselves by saying “But I’ve saved him the time of messaging me!” but it is completely acceptable to ignore messages from those you’re not interested in. (And as though you’re such hot shit that you’re getting so many messages you have to cut them down! Bitch please.) Rather, there’s a power thing going on here, and it is not in the favour of ethnic minorities.

Lately, another dating requirement has caught my eye: guys who look like body builders (recognizable by their pictures of flexed arms or peeling off t-shirts to display rippling abs) always seem to be after other body builders. They make their preference clear in a myriad of ways, some subtle and some obvious. First, for their interests, where other people put things like ‘Indian food’ and ‘The New Yorker’, they proceed to list every single physical activity they do and have ever done, from jogging to white water rafting. They will often write of going to the gym regularly and how they would like to find someone to go with.

When they describe who it is they would like to date, they have a number of codes: they are interested in meeting guys who are “healthy”, “athletic”, “in shape”, “physically active”, who “take care of themselves” and “share their interests” (presumably, white water rafting). You look at the pictures of their broad bull-like shoulders and pectorals like melons, and you look down at your thuddingly-real-person physique, and think “Forget it.”

They might as well write “Look, I spent a lot of time on this body. It was hard work, okay! So you damn well better have also spent your free weekends pumping iron and drenched in sweat if you’re going to message me, because why would I settle for anything less?”

I may be being too hard on them. But, along with Gaston from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, my feelings about narcissistic body builders were largely shaped by the incredible book The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste by Jane and Michael Stern, which tells you everything you’ve ever want to know about lawn ornaments, Hawaiian shirts and the Gabor sisters. Their history of body building is a dead-pane riot:

“Body building is both an art and sport, but not quite either. It would be more of an art if everybody who participated aimed for a different kind of body—if, for instance, one body builder created a huge left arm and a minuscule right one with a fabulously well-developed hand, and another one specialized in spindly thighs atop bulked-up calves. That would be interesting art…

As a sport, it is pretty silly too, because it is devoted to the cultivation of muscles that have no purpose. It does not demand the talent to run or hit or jump, and there is no test of skill on court or field that requires carting around so massive a physique. Unlike gymnastics or ballet, which also require a fabulous physique, body building involves doing nothing other than standing in front of a crowd and flexing arms, stomachs, and buttocks in synch with music.

Participants sometimes justify it as a sport because of all the hard work that goes into developing a perfect body. But this is strictly conceptual, as it is a process spectators do not see. It would be like showing the car that won Le Mans without showing the race. The activity body building most resembles is dog showing. In both cases, the most handsome wins.”

Maybe some body builders actually like the process of ‘building’ their bodies, get pleasure from all that lifting and grunting. If it makes them feel good and learning all the technical names for muscles is how they want to spend their time, great! But if they are doing it because that kind of body attracts lovers with the same, then body building is like black hair extensions or boob jobs: you’ve literally objectified yourself, turning your body something for another’s pleasure rather than your own.

It got to the point where I no longer would look at the profiles of men who categorized their bodies as “athletic”. But while researching for this post I discovered some guys who went against the grain. “I’m as interested in the mind as the body,” one hunk wrote. Another, “I don’t have a type, so don’t hesitate to message me!”

I realized I was as prejudiced as the body builders I mocked. Perhaps body building, while being more extreme and time-consuming, was just another way we presented ourselves in the most attractive way possible, not so different from my shaving and choosing a cute t-shirt for a first date.

Still, I’d take Aladdin over Gaston any day.

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Famous on Facebook

I recently discovered an envelope of photographs from a grade seven birthday party of mine. The pictures are embarrassing not least because I was in my pre-growth-spurt chunky phase. My school friends, dressed in late 1990’s camouflage tee-shirts and jean overalls, are shown dancing, almost frolicking, around my living room, at times even lifting each other up. Obviously, these pictures will never see the light of day and will not be uploaded onto a certain social networking website.

The remind me of a pre-digital era when I borrowed my parents’ camera for special occasions and had to wait what seemed like an eternity to get the pictures developed. There is a good chance that my friends in the photographs never even saw them. It was a more innocent time when the picture you took were yours alone, to place in an album and show people only on your initiative.

Every generation has the event that can in hindsight be viewed as the watershed moment that ended one era and heralded the next. While it may in the past have been the First World War, the assassination of JFK or the death of Kurt Cobain, for people my age it occurred when we signed up for our first social networking website and began being the purveyors of our own self-image.

It was the spring of 2006 and many of my friends had already joined something called facebook. “What unlimited forms of self-presentation!” I thought as I uploaded my first profile pic. No event was too small to document with my new digital camera. My second album was of my friends and I watching Julie Andrews musicals and throwing balloons at each other.

During my black and white-themed birthday party a few weeks later, I was so impressed by the creativity and diversity of my friends’ outfits that I kept my camera clicking all night. Thanks to facebook, I could upload and ‘tag’ these pictures, sharing them with all my friends.

The two parties were separated by less than a decade but seem eons apart. My grade seven friends didn’t need to over-think their appearance because they knew that the pictures would most likely disappear into an envelope (only to be discovered by their embarrassed creator years later). In contrast, my university friend’s black and white costumes were almost instantaneously viewable for all my friends, many of their friends and anyone who adds me on facebook up to the present day. What an increased pressure to look good! And while my black and white party was early in the era of facebook and many of my guests may not have considered the long legacy of their outfits, they definitely know about it now.

When standing in front of my closet and deciding what to wear to a party or night out or any other event where a camera may be present (and that’s prey much anywhere nowadays), a series of new questions have crowded the traditional venn diagram of ‘What do I look good in?’ and ‘What’s clean?’ I’ll consider if I’ve worn a certain shirt before, and in front of whom. Was I photographed and were those pictures private or accessible to all my friends? And maybe I should wear that new one I bought because I might get a cool profile pic out of it. Any outfit that may prove controversial has to be balanced with the consideration that I now have uncles and former nannies on facebook (my parents are not allowed to join). Even before being photographed I subconsciously consider the potential fall-out of being tagged on facebook.

Social networking has turned us into celebrities. Just as Paris Hilton and Britney Spears must consider how they will look in photographs on the red carpet, we now must consider how we will look on our friends’ home pages. Is it any wonder that we no longer stand awkwardly and wave (as in traditional amateur photography of the past), but coo and pout for the cameras like actors showing off their borrowed designer duds to ‘Entertainment Tonight’?

You may be thinking that you certainly don’t put any more effort into your appearance because of facebook, and that may be true, but I have an inkling that there are more people in the other column. How else to explain the phenomenon of ‘un-tagging’, the process of removing one’s name from a photograph so it will no longer be viewable to one’s friends? Un-tagging is our best defence against looking goofy online. I recently had a friend un-tag herself due to a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ so minor that I hadn’t even noticed it: the tassels of her scarf were sticking out the bottom of her jacket creating the impression of a Muppet hand reaching down towards her crotch. Although I have as many unflattering pictures as anyone (and I’m certain some will prevent me from ever running for public office), I have taken a strict stand against ‘un-tagging’. Who am I to decide which of my friends’ pictures represents me? Un-tagging is where the metaphor of celebrity breaks down, as Britney Spears cannot scan all the tabloid shots of herself and decide which ones she be deleted (although I bet she wishes she could!)

As someone who loves fashion and enjoys putting thought into what he wears, I like that our generation may put more effort into their clothes than they might otherwise because of social networking. But with all things internet-based there is the potential that as fast as it rose, it can quickly fall. Just as we were convinced (or peer-pressured) into joining something because all of our friends were on it, everyone can abandon something in the reverse movement. While facebook tries one ham-fisted advertising strategy after another, other companies have adopted the aesthetics of social networking to attract the youth demographic. The current ads for Virgin mobile feature pictures that evoke the amateur, spur-of-the-moment look of facebook pics. When advertisers have caught on to something, it usually means it’s on the way out. And simultaneously, hipster artists have rediscovered Polaroid cameras, whose grainy quality suggests a nostalgic, pre-digital authenticity that we’ve lost in all our uploading. Facebook may eventually decline, but the lessons it taught us about self-presentation may stick. It’s not unbelievable to pictures us mooning glamorously for the cameras at the old folk’s home.