Day 37: Of the Standard of Beauty

Sam (an intentional gender-neutral pseudonym) was visiting our city for a few days, so my friend and I took Sam out to dinner. A conversation about weight came up during our conversation about food. “I am blessed to be able to eat a lot and not get fat,” said Sam. We did, in fact, order a large amount of food that evening and were successful in finishing all of it by the end of the meal. According to my standards, Sam was slim and looked healthy. What struck me was not that Sam was able to eat a lot and maintain a desirable weight, but Sam’s explanation of how Sam could eat a lot and not gain weight.

I am lucky. I have a fast metabolism. Knock on wood.

Sam’s explanation brings to mind a series of intertwined concepts. First and foremost, there is a shift in the understanding of how a person gains weight, from the amount of food consumed, to the “misguided faith” in missing the chemical processes that maintain a healthy life, i.e., in this case, metabolism, or the synthesis of the proteins, carbohydrates, and fats that form tissue and store energy. “I don’t really know what it means — all I know is that if you have a fast metabolism, you won’t get fat,” said Sam. One of our friends there, fortunately, was a medical doctor, so he shared with me afterwards the crucial information about metabolism, which has been well summarized in Mayo Clinic’s website as follows:

It’s true that metabolism is linked to weight. But contrary to common belief, a slow metabolism is rarely the cause of excess weight gain. Although your metabolism influences your body’s basic energy needs, it’s your food and beverage intake and your physical activity that ultimately determine how much you weigh.

The fact that Sam comfortably spoke about metabolism (without knowing what it really meant) exemplifies the lack of knowledge about human biology the average person possesses about the science of human biological life available, as well as the popular knowledge about what makes us fat or thin. Second, there is a process of “self-promotion” by using a certain unique quality of one’s biology to distinguish oneself from others. This process of self-promotion reinforces the misconception that there are people who were simply unfortunate for not possessing the same unique quality.

Sam’s “I-am-lucky statement” struck me and, due to my skepticism and curiosity, I loosely observed how Sam ate, which got me to realize that what Sam meant by “I have a fast metabolism” was no more than a tactic of pretending to eat but not really putting anything in his/her mouth.

Throughout our conversation, every 10-15 spoonfuls of rice other people (me included) put in their mouth, Sam would eat a half-spoon of a carefully selected protein-based food. Unlike others, Sam didn’t drink beer, but consumed only red wine, a diet-friendly alcohol choice, but only a limited amount (although Sam also claimed “I can drink a lot without getting drunk”). Of course, I am not trying to over-read Sam’s action, as I don’t think that Sam was that calculating. It could just be that this was Sam’s habit of eating. Yet, what this eating habit shows is the fact that Sam actually did not really eat much, if Sam ate anything at all that evening. The food was all gone but it was other people on the table who consumed 90%-95% of the food (oh, forgot to say that we weren’t eating a la carte). Later, from Sam’s friends, I learned that Sam was on multiple kinds of dietary and weight loss products. Sam would sometimes starve at night in order to stay slim.

“I never have to worry about my weight,” Sam reinforced our perception of Sam’s body many times that evening. Similar to Sam’s I-am-lucky statement, this statement raises several questions. On the one hand, I don’t understand why Sam claimed to have a faster metabolism than others, when, like anyone else, Sam was so concerned with weight gain and appearance. On the other hand, even if Sam were worried about that, why would someone make up a claim that there was something about that someone’s biological quality that is better than others? (and why rely on a scientific underpinning, i.e., faster metabolism).

From the viewpoint of bio-sociality, Sam’s I-am-lucky discourse systematically connects biological knowledge, concepts of identity and self-hood, and modes of political articulation to become a “new collective subject” in order to gain an advantage over the perception of the laypeople about Sam’s unique biological quality. I assume that we at the dining table were the laypeople. The problem here is that Sam’s knowledge about biology was limited (as Sam wasn’t able to explain what he/she meant by metabolism), Sam’s concepts of identity and self-hood were dominated by Sam’s own critical pressure of finding employment (which I later learned), which, in turn, distorted Sam’s modes of political articulation (as it wasn’t clear whether or not Sam believed that everyone was born equal). From an evolutionary perspective, it is advantageous for Sam to portray Sam’s own thinness as the result of “good genes” (high metabolism/luck) because that is an assurance that Sam will likely stay thin where as those who constantly battle with their weight could easily loose that battle and plummet into obesity.

What my observation of Sam brings to mine is a horrifying story I read in the news aw while ago.

It was a story of a woman who almost died because from a weight loss surgery she sought after she was insulted by a “woman of a larger size” at a supermarket who told her that she should be drinking fat-free instead of 2% fat milk. I could imagine that Sam’s I-am-lucky statement would have a similarly negative impact on a person who is sensitive to this issue. Without knowing that Sam was lying about the luck he/she “happens to possess,” someone could be tricked into believing that he/she has to do something, including something risky, to change that because he/she “happens to lack” that kind of luck. That is to say, while one could look into Sam’s statements as “seemingly” factual and self-reflexive, I cannot help but to think that they are also forms of bullying. The fact the word “fat” was not used in a direct sense does not make it less harassing. In fact, truth be told, bullies that come in forms of benign efforts to help  or indirect demonstration of biological differences can also be equally or even more damaging.

The mantra, or a statement or slogan that shall be repeated frequently to make your life worth living.

The mantra, or a statement or slogan that shall be repeated frequently to make your life worth living.

P.S. This is a re-post, with minor edits, from my old blog called Life in Urbanism. The original title of the post is “All About Sam.” Duh. The reason why I am re-posting this is because I lately have been thinking about how I survived during all those years during which I had to endure the difficulty of having to live with people like Sam. Most beautiful-minded people I have met don’t look like people you see in films. In fact, many people you see in films don’t look like those people you want to see in films anymore. The standard of beauty is changing, and we are more accepting to differences, which I think is one of the greatest things about our time, but only if you happen to have the privilege in living in the places that welcome and accept diversity with open arms. Unfortunately, I didn’t grow up in a place like that. In fact, surrounding me were people who happened to believe that everything that happened to you happened to you thanks precisely to only one thing — that which is faith. People around me made comments about how other people were fat, ugly, bald, and so on, without even a slight conscience that which such comments may be unfair. Nobody can choose a body to be born into. And sometimes you can’t control what happens to your body. The same way we’d feel the deep sense of shame when we mistakenly make fun of the disabled people (like in the film Ted 2 when Ted and Johnny were so ashamed of themselves for making fun of a blind man because they didn’t realize he was blind), we should feel the same sense of guilt when we think of people who do not have the “cosmetic look” at you happen to believe to be good-looking or beautiful. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder — I do still believe it — and I would also mention that we have this idiom thanks to the philosopher David Hume. His actual quote is:

Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them, and each mind perceives a different beauty.

This quote appears In his famous (though short) essay “Of the Standard of Taste,” written and published in 1757, in which he also adds to that mantra that when we feel that something is beautiful, it’s largely having to do with our own upbringing. What we have been told to believe to be pretty; what we have been told to try to avoid or to completely avoid; what we shall think of being completely ugly because that which is a matter out of place. According to Hume, beauty without a careful consideration in the name of forced objective neutrality is blind and mindless.

Think about this for a second here. When we see things that we believe to be beautiful, how much time do we spend in asking “why it is/she/he beautiful?” Most people don’t ask at all — they just take the beauty of the object, of a person, as a given. One reason is that we cannot really do that in reality. We do not have time, and conscious energy, to make sense of everything that we see (unless we are David Hume, of course), so we might as well should just forget about it — the superficiality of life. I believe that we all have something interesting to offer — of all us do — and I believe that which is the true heart and intellectual energy to improve the community of which we are a part.

The other lesson that we can learn from Hume here is that the only form of beauty that is internal to our sense of biological being is the inner beauty. The external beauty, such as your look, is external to your being. You won’t know whether you are beautiful or not until someone tells you. You need someone to tell you whether or not you are good-looking, and that makes no sense to me. People say they want to be beautiful because they want themselves to appreciate it, but that’s not entirely true since the constant desire for other people’s acceptance is what you desire for when you fabricate yourself to appeal to the world of external beauty. It’s the only internal beauty, what you are as a person, that could make you happy because you can be content with yourself without having to rely on other people’s acceptance.

No emphasis, at all, should be placed on how we look. Fat or thin, bald or full of hair, and so on, should not matter. I don’t see these distinctions anymore, in fact. I don’t like what Sam did because Sam was conscious of the fact that Sam was making things “seem as though Sam was born lucky,” than others. Sam was not. The society in which both Sam and I are living is a developed society, in which neither of us could easily get away with making arbitrarily judgmental comments on beauty and natural attributes. I want to say that Sam should also not be allowed to fabricate Sam’s own story to replicate those arbitrarily judgmental comments. Like any of us, Sam would get fat if Sam eats carelessly and unhealthily, but the way in which Sam portrays Sam’s own “given superiority,” that evening, simply made me sick to my stomach.

At the Vatican City in 2010 -- when I was 95% bald.

At the Vatican City in 2010 — when I was 95% bald.

My personal story: I was bald for a long time because my father just passed away and I was in the complete state of melancholy so I was in obscurely deep and miserable sorrow. Every minute of my waking life, people came to me and said to me, “oh, you’re bald; that’s so sad.” I was not born bald, but I was bald because I was dealing with stress, and stress — especially because I was extremely sad — may have been the cause or hair loss. I didn’t want to be bald because I didn’t want people to pity me. On the other hand, why should I care about them? At the end of the day, I would rather spend my saving on philanthropic activity, rather than getting an expensive hair transplant surgery which is still the one and only effective way of artificially growing back the hair that you have lost.

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2 thoughts on “Day 37: Of the Standard of Beauty

  1. I enjoy dipping into your writings – thanks!
    But, I think you’re missing the point here, possibly because of your failed, albeit valiant, attempt to eschew gender. Sam’s assertion isn’t one of biological superiority, but of trying not to be seen as vain and insecurely obsessed with her appearance. It’s a common ruse of celebrity models: ‘oh, I eat anything’ along with ‘I was a plain, gawky kid’ and ‘I’m NOT anorexic’. Which leads us down another path of inquiry altogether, one that sees Sam and her inept deception as a product of something much larger.

    Like

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