Sunday, January 16, 2011

If Ignorance was Truly Bliss

There is not a day that goes by that we don't log onto the world wide web and stumble across a news story of some ill-fated characters who are being mistreated, terrorized, and even killed in today's society. Click onto Huffington Post's or any news site and you will be thrust into a whirlwind of horrific and heart-breaking stories: home foreclosures and unemployed America, pedophile priests and abusive parents, dying soldiers and civilians in war torn countries and freak mass shootings by 'extremists'. The perverse focus of modern day media on negativity has left many of us tainted with cynicism and a misanthropic outlook on the world and the many people in it. Is it any wonder we're losing heart in what seems to be a world destined for ruin? How can we shut out the dramatized reality every computer, TV, and newspaper spews out? Perhaps we could just chuck the media sources out the window, return to a simpler life; perhaps we should become Amish.

Years ago a study found that the Amish communities, in their simplistic and isolated society, were statistically significantly happier than the rest of us. Several psychologists and sociologists offered up their reasoning and rationales for the cause of this marked increase of bliss; a lack of conspicuous consumerism or possibly the ease of a less complicated and hurried lifestyle. But the most compelling evidence I had heard was that of absence of social media outlets. Having little to no access to the circus that is the nightly news, many of the more traditional Amish have successfully disconnected themselves from the outside world. Without stories of neighborhood shootings and robberies to strike fear into their hearts, without images of natural disasters and wars worlds away and all the victims that go hand in hand with such tragedies, without all the weight of the violence and hatred in the world bearing down on their shoulders, why shouldn't they be happier? They are, in essence, the ostrich with their heads in the sand.

There was a time when I, in seething protest of the foul manipulation of events and biased reporting, refused to watch the news. Refusing to partake in the brewing storm of scare tactics, refusing to allow two pixelated representations of emotionally disconnected human beings into my living room, I invested my attention elsewhere (usually in reruns of The Golden Girls, and who can be sad when the room is aglow with four saucy female senior citizens?). On the internet, I avoided the home pages of various servers who had the habit of posting headlines and streaming ticker tapes. And I found myself slightly more at peace in this brief hiatus. Without terrifying stories of muggings and rapes, I no longer tiptoed apprehensively through the shadows of my front yard at night. Without the disproportionate coverage of minority crimes, I no longer double-checked the minorities walking by on the sidewalk (yeah, being Mexican I was still checking the Mexicans). Without the countless tears of families and friends crying on camera over a fallen loved one, I was no longer feeling the bog of someone else’s devastation on my heart. Unfortunately, this peace was nothing more than a selfish escape from the real world, and while the Amish are happier, they and people like them are failing our society.

Too often we simply concern ourselves with our immediate environment, the people in our everyday lives, our family, our friends, and rarely give consideration to the others beyond our own little bubbles. The news media is our only window connecting us to the events and tragedies that befall our states, countries, continents, and our globe. Without these outlets, we would have never known of the Haiti earthquake or the Pakistani flooding. We would have never known of the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict or that horrific crime against humanity, the Flotilla raid. We would have never known of the tragic shooting that took place in Arizona last week. And without this information, we never could have sent the millions of dollars in aid to natural disaster victims. We never could have lashed out in anger at the Israelis, consequently forcing them to ease off their blockade restrictions and allow the Palestinians some food. We never could have been inspired by the handful of heroic stories as good Samaritans rushed to the scene of the shooting to help whomever they could, in spite of being shot when trying to stop the gunman.

Despite the pain, frustration, and sadness that washes over us when these haunting images flash across the screen, it is human nature to empathize with the plight of our fellow man. It is our obligation to care for one another and help in any way we can. To reach beyond our boundaries, to force open our eyes to conquer our self-induced ignorance is our responsibility as global citizens. Excuse the forthcoming sap that will no doubt cue a Michael Jackson song somewhere, but we are one world, there can’t be divisions and isolation. People need help, and for those of us who are in countries far better off than the majority of the earth, where our worst days could be a utopia for a starving child in a third world nation, we must provide whatever assistance possible. But how can we know who needs help without the media? We cannot allow their blighted stories to destroy our well-being and our sense of security, but neither can we shut them off when the events they’re sharing can be made no more tragic than if we were standing there ourselves.

In my absence from the news media, I still continued to do my part the best I could. I ran a cancer fund for a few years, I donated my time to underprivileged children and juvenile delinquents, and even donated my money to endangered chimps in Tanzania (yeah they need money too, bananas don’t grow on trees, ya know…wait, they do? Crap…well played Miss Goodall, well played). But it wasn’t until I joined the ranks of that queen woman on YouTube that I felt I was a part of an initiative with a global impact, and being a part of that movement required me to dip back into the ongoing world events such as war, terrorism, and human suffering. Then, and only then, could we begin to fight it.

Turning your back on the world and averting your eyes from the pain of others may give you a sense of peace and happiness the rest of us are not afforded, but in the end, it is our consciences that will be cleared when we reach for our wallets, sacrifice some time from our schedules, or simply send out prayers and love to those across the state lines, across the oceans. So enjoy your bliss, Amish dudes, go till your soil and drive your wagons and try to forget us, but don’t forget, when tragedy struck you, we were there.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Separating Fat from Fiction

It is almost inevitable in any new year to walk down the street, turn on the TV, or gather around the water cooler and hear a stranger, an actor, or a coworker talking about the holiday pounds and whatever scheme they've cooked up to obliterate them. And let's face it, our hips and thighs are rarely safe in the last few months of every year with the endless parade of sweets, snacks, and, ahem, cocktails that marches through our offices and kitchens. Sadly though, I can't help but look at the people around me and think "what the hell are you complaining about?" While a few pesky pounds may have nestled comfortably on their abdomens, they are hardly noticeable, let alone worthy of a crash diet of tiny calories and psychotic carb-counting. Most fail to see that once returning to their previous lifestyle after the barrage of food, those little pounds will eventually fall off on their own. Most fail to see that there's nothing wrong with them in the first place.

The obsession of weight and beauty in pop culture today is not a novel one, but is growing ever more concerning as society begins to polarize, values are shifted, and the power of influence is won. Battles between activist groups and the media have ensued and results are sketchy to say the least. Italy banned too-thin models from their runways, hoping to reset the mode on the incredible shrinking shrews on the catwalks, but most models who couldn't find work there moved to France and New York, where such bans have yet to be placed. While there was marked outrage over an America's Next Top Model contestant whose waist was so small a judge could cup his hands around it, an incident which forced the show's creator Tyra Banks to issue a public apology, the model went on to take home the prize in the show. Celebrities speak out about being comfortable in their skin when the pounds are packed on, but immediately lose the weight in the face of criticism, (i.e. the martyr Jennifer Love Hewitt who viciously attacked the media for their comments on her cellulite before quickly slimming to a size 2). Magazines that even brag about healthy living and self-acceptance are slaves to the machine with ads and falsified photos. We are constantly pummeled with images of stick thin models and actresses, most of which are not even accurate images given the technology of retouching, but they nevertheless set the bar impossibly high and create societal standards of beauty no one could meet. But, we try, God help us we try, and with every failed attempt a piece of self-esteem withers and every mirror becomes our mortal enemy. The socially determined rules of beauty are a poison in our world, and it's trickling down to our children.

While our country is ranked as the second fattest in the world (we're down one from last year, thanks to our chubby friends south of the border, ole!), cases of eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and other dangerous dieting habits are on the rise. Girls are dieting at younger ages, not under the careful supervision of a pediatrician or a nutritionist, but partaking in fad diets and pills that wreak havoc on their still-developing bodies. Believing that what they see in magazines, on TV, and in movies is what is expected of them, their minds are already warped before they're old enough to count the calories they're cutting. Not long ago my heart broke when I paid a compliment to my five year old cousin on a new pair of jeans and her response was "yeah they're nice but they're skinny jeans and I'm not skinny". Where does a five year old even hear the concept of being skinny or not? Though we usually blame the media, we forget the power of our own influence on our children: a conversation overheard from mom, aunts, cousins who constantly complain about their own weight are indirectly teaching their children that there are guidelines of personal image to adhere to, that they are not good enough on their own.

A child of such a situation, I've struggled greatly with my weight throughout my life. Though I was active in soccer, gymnastics, and dance as a child, genetics were not on my side. My mother was more mindful of our foods. We were not allowed the popular sugar drinks and snacks that my friends were fortunate enough to have in their lunches, but comments were made such as "do you really need another helping?" and my esteem slowly sank. I began my own line of fad diets when I was just nine, the first being Slim Fast, followed by a week long stint of pure vegetable soup and protein shakes, and eventually just starving myself. As I got older, my problem became poor eating and a sedentary lifestyle, and I got heavier. Comments evolved into "you would be so pretty if you lose that weight", or "you'll never get a boyfriend looking like that". Though I've dropped a good 40 pounds since high school, (yes I was that big), I'm still overweight and struggle with my self-esteem, avoiding most pictures for fear of a sneaky double chin sticking out or a bad angle of a flabby arm that spreads like a damn wing when you allow it to rest at your side. It's a work in progress, and I've had to work to shut out the world and their rules in order to begin to accept myself as I am, gingerbread, muffin top, and cottage cheese thighs altogether.

The media, in its own way, has tried to make amends. To the overwhelming joy of the general public, Glamour magazine published a photo of a nude plus-sized model (above) who seemed to be perfectly happy with the state of her body and was by all accounts quite beautiful; though I have to admit even with her little roll on her tummy she does not qualify as plus-sized in my book. RuPaul has a television show that encourages self-acceptance and self-love rather than changing to find that love. And model Isabelle Caro, who struggled with severe anorexia, used her influence for good and posed in several photo shoots and on billboards in a global anti-anorexia campaign. Regrettably, she passed away in November from complications of her illness, but even in death her life can be used as a resounding example of the dangers our obsession with weight can drive us into. Unfortunately, in spite of its best (non, mediocre) efforts, for every liberating photo and show, and every warning on a single billboard, the media spews out millions of contradicting images right alongside them in the magazines, on television, and on the dozens of other billboards that follow on the highway.

We know it, we hear it every day, and we see it on the internet, thanks to the paparazzi and tech-hounds who uncover unflattering negatives of photo shoots before our beloved celebrities and models are fixed up. This perverse ideation is a perpetual fantasy, a disastrous dream that corrodes our very well-being. So why can't our eyes see what our minds already know? Why can't we throw up that lovely middle finger to the press and go on about our lives happy, loving who we are, cherishing the beauty we have, and enjoying our cuisine and wine? I'm not saying we should throw healthy eating and exercise to the wayside, it's important to get your ass off the couch and move, and for God's sake, eat an apple once in awhile. But, don't starve yourself, don't hate yourself in that moment of weakness when you give in to temptation (or a boss that throws awesome paninis in your face), and don't obsess over those holiday pounds. Skeletons are out. Enjoy your extra fluff, believe me, it actually looks pretty damn hot on you.