Sticking with the physical attractiveness theme from my last post, let's talk about body dissatisfaction and the "ideal" body presented in pop culture. An article form the (mostly) satirical site A.V. Club reposted some pictures from an anti-bulimia website that featured Photoshopped video game and comic characters. Their apparent goal is to represent "real life" body types in an attempt to curb our tendency to feel dissatisfaction with our bodies.
There are two serious problems with this exercise. First, the editors of the anti-bulimia website don't really seem to understand WHY we create fictional depictions of an idealized body type. Second, they don't seem to understand the root cause (or solution to) of body dissatisfaction. Let's tackle the first issue.
Why Does the Idealized Body Type Sell?
As much as we fancy ourselves (humans) as rational, logical, intellectual creatures, the survival of our species is contingent on our primal desires to reproduce and get our genes into the next generation. Furthermore, we have to have some assurance that our offspring are genetically fit, and the "fitter" the better. That's why, when given a choice, we'll always fuck the most attractive person we can land in a given situation. What we consider universally "attractive" (which differs for men and women as discussed in the last post) has evolved over countless generations as a mechanism to keep our species genetically healthy enough to survive.
The idealized body type we see in works of fiction exaggerate those characteristics we find universally attractive, which helps them sell. That works because we like looking at that which we find universally attractive. Let's say the publishers of Tomb Raider decide to make a size 16 Lara Croft. Would people rather buy and play that version, or would they prefer the older version that featured the current version? As much as we'd love to believe we're "advanced" and would celebrate chubby Lara, we all know the game would be the next E.T.
Per the rules of capitalism, businesses don't produce products that don't sell. Some people like to suggest something along the lines of "If EVERY company dropped the use of the idealized body, THEN we'd solve this problem!"
Nice sentiment, but that's not how capitalism works. The allure of being that lone company that would buck the rules by playing to our primal desires would be too great. Besides, most people like to frame this as "if only these big, evil corporations would do this... yadda, yadda, yadda" without seemingly understanding that, in almost every case, the profit motivation behind business directly or indirectly puts food on their table. Would you really want the person that signs YOUR paycheck to commit market suicide by producing products that would put them at a competitive disadvantage?
I know some readers are thinking "Jesus, why are men such shallow pigs?!? If only they would stop objectifying women's bodies, we could finally solve this issue! Fucking patriarchy!!!!"
My response - which book do ya think would sell more copies:
The knife cuts both ways, ladies.
What's Really Behind Body Dissatisfaction?
The first issue is pretty simple to explain. This one? It gets a little tricky. There are all sorts of explanations that explain why we tend not to like our bodies, and the issue affects men just as much as women.
Right now, I'm in pretty good shape due to jiu jitsu and mma training coupled with weight training and fairly strict dietary moderation. I'm pretty cut and I love it. HOWEVER, three months ago I was gravitating toward a dadbod. It sucked. I didn't like looking at myself in the mirror, felt insecure, and would get mildly depressed. I was experiencing body dissatisfaction.
So why does our self-perception of our bodies affect us so much? It's because we fear social rejection. Take a look at Maslow's hierarchy:
See that yellow middle "love and belonging" section? We need to feel a sense of connection with others, both socially and sexually. We get insecure about our perception of our body image because we know people will like us more if we're physically attractive. Here's a quick primer for the uninitiated. Want another source? Here ya go. This is a really, really hard pill to swallow and most people would prefer to pretend this isn't the case, but it's reality. It's the same primal, evolutionary mechanism described above. If this were NOT the case, any one of us would be perfectly happy having sex with a random member of the population.
Don't think this is how us humans are hardwired? Let's hang out and we'll play that game where I get to pick someone for you to have sex with. Odds are good your resolve to deny this phenomenon is weaker than your willingness to bang someone on my municipality's equivalent of Skid Row. ;-)
Anyway, that fear and anxiety of social and sexual rejection is the underlying mechanism that fuels our body dissatisfaction. The key to that - this is a phenomenon that occurs in our own heads and is based on our own preferences for attractive people.
What does that mean? I like looking at attractive people, therefore I transpose my own psychological mechanism on everyone else. I assume THEY also like looking at attractive people. If I'm not feeling attractive, I assume others aren't going to like looking at me and will experience the exact same bias I have against unattractive people.
This is an incredibly important point; re-read it until you really understand and internalize it.
This concept gets lost in our own heads because we have a lot of other mechanisms at play. For example, we may love looking at attractive people, but if we think they're "out of our league", we tend to set up defense mechanisms to pre-disqualify them as potential mates ("he must be a douche" or "she must be a bitch".) This leads us to actually attempt to match up with people closer to our own "level" of attractiveness, but it doesn't change the primal preference for the physically attractive.
So What's the Solution?
I'd offer two pieces of advice to end body dissatisfaction, and neither involves the stupid "feel good" shit like photoshopping fictional characters.
First, improve yourself. Nothing ends body dissatisfaction faster than making yourself more attractive to others. You can work on getting fit and all the other stuff related to physical attractiveness I discussed in my last post. You can also take a really, really easy short-cut: Learn to exude confidence. That's the single best way to improve how others see you, and it's one of the first things I recommend in my San Diego Man Camp. I'll be honest - I really like fit women with large breasts and round asses (find pics of my wife for a good example ;-) .) However, I find myself attracted to any body type if the woman is confident.
Second, when you do experience body dissatisfaction, understand you're experiencing it because of a fear of rejection. Simply acknowledging that cognitive mechanism can do wonders, but I'd go a step further and actually boot the fear to the curb. When you're free of that fear of social and sexual rejection, you're no longer riddled with body image insecurity.
So there you go. Now you know the problem and the solutions. Please stop posting stupid "everyone is beautiful" ego-boosting shit on Facebook.