Time for women to reclaim brains over bodies
- Published: 13 August 2011
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14 August 2011
Twenty-five percent of American women aged 18 to 34 would rather win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize, and 22 percent would rather lose the ability to read than their figures.
They’d rather lose their ability to READ?!
Al Gore, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama have won the Nobel Peace Prize for alerting the planet about the dangers of climate change, advocating nonviolence, and saving thousands of lives.
One in four of my young American sisters would rather win some ninny reality show for teetering down the runway in six-inch heels than join the ranks of the world’s leading thinkers? What kind of women would seriously answer the poll that way?
The same women who would trade literacy for a hot bod. Wow.
The younger the sample, the worse things get. A Pew Research Center poll found that 51 percent of eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds said that becoming famous was their most important or second most important life goal. Half of young women would rather get hit by a truck than get fat.
But it’s bad news for us across the board, at all ages. One-third of women in a representative survey consider their appearance their most important quality, more important than job performance or—sigh—intelligence.
When I simmered down, I realized, grudgingly and painfully, that those twenty-five percenters, in their own twisted way, admitted something that is true for nearly all of us modern girls.
Maybe you can confidently say you’d take the trip to Stockholm for the Nobel over Tyra Banks calling you “fierce” on the catwalk, but how about this: The vast majority of young American women value their hairstylist over their accountant, according to the same Oxygen Media survey.
Can you honestly say you don’t fall into that category? Or this: Young American women who consider themselves attractive spend more time grooming themselves than watching or reading the news. Lots of us—dare I say, most of us—spend more time wielding a blow-dryer than a newspaper.
This is what we’ve become, despite our educational achievements, despite our brainpower.
I once knew an overweight female judge who’d spent a lifetime trying, unsuccessfully, to lose weight. She told me she’d do anything, even give up the bench, if she could just be thin.
Breathe in, breathe out. Regain composure.
Here’s the nagging problem. Perhaps it’s not individual vanity and shallow-mindedness that led to those answers. Because I believe that these statistics are a reaction to something much bigger. What if they are rational responses to a culture that values a specific, high-maintenance feminine beauty ideal over female brains?
Because we now require more—much more—tweezing and hot waxing and highlighting and contouring and Botoxing and body sculpting of our female bodies than we did a generation ago. And most of us do most of it most of the time because if we don’t, we don’t get the cultural goodies: the boyfriend, the job, the social status.
Even though we have breathtaking equality compared to our mother’s generation, we now jam our toes into sky-high platforms our mothers would never have worn and, to our mothers’ horror, submit our bodies to plastic surgeons because the hot girl gets rewarded.
The 25 percent of young American women who’d rather keep their figures and win a modeling contest know something; they know there’s a big brass ring for them merely for looking good, and brains—well, maybe there’s a payoff there, and maybe not.
But the hot girl generally gets what she wants. That’s the promise our culture makes to girls: Be hot and you will get. In film, television, magazines, and online, there’s one constant question to our girls: Are you hot or not?
So it should not be surprising that when given a choice, they choose hot—because we still don’t offer a big enough payoff for choosing brains.
Tabloid media is making us stupid, narcissistic, and self-loathing
You know the phrase “garbage in, garbage out”? Computer programmers initially coined it to explain that a computer’s output is only as good as the information the computer is given. GIGO is a principle digital recorders use, meaning that an audio or video file, digitized, is only as good as its analog counterpart.
Likewise, in organic chemistry, if the materials used in the organic synthesis are impure, the resulting mixture will be of low quality.
Or how about this one: “We are what we eat”? Sure, our health depends on the right input of nutrients. And so it is for the mind. We are what we read—and what we view on all those television and computer monitors in our lives. The information we take in daily shapes our outlook, our context, and our view of what’s important.
Most of us read ingredient warnings and consider what we’re putting into our mouths. But how many of us consider the quality of what we’re feeding our minds on a regular basis?
For women, what we read, increasingly and sometimes exclusively, is celebrity rags and blogs: People, U.S. Weekly, In Touch, OK, Star, National Enquirer, TMZ.com, PerezHilton.com, Radar Online.
TMZ.com has ten million unique visitors each month, and Yahoo’s celebrity gossip page, “OMG!” has twenty million. These skew overwhelmingly female. Young women especially pore over the tabloids like they’ll be tested on them.
In 2003 U.S. Weekly had a modest 800,000 subscribers per week. That number more than doubled to a circulation of nearly two million weekly by 2010. An editor there tells me they count at least 10 readers per subscriber, as the glossies are popular in doctor’s offices and nail salons; I see them in waiting rooms everywhere.
Janice Min, the glossy’s outgoing editor-in-chief, says her core market is the 13 million American women who are “avidly involved” in pop culture. This would presumably include the 10 million people who tuned in to the 2009 season premiere of Jon and Kate Plus Eight after U.S. Weekly “broke the news” of their separation and featured cover stories on Jon and Kate six weeks in a row in the summer of 2009.
Garbage in, garbage out.
Read glossy rags about the personal lives of celebrities and then turn on the show to watch them sit on the couch and whine and fester. Then buy next week’s magazine to read up on the new hairstyle or mistress.
This process is a complete ecosystem, except that as in organic chemistry, the impurities you’re pumping into your brain are lowering your IQ, convincing you that this crap cosmically matters, and damaging your mental health.
Seriously, that’s what’s happening. Dr. Drew Pinksy (syndicated radio host of Loveline for over twenty-five years and host of Celebrity Rehab) argues in his book The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America that our current fame obsession is a public health issue, and I am with him on this.
He subjected 200 celebs to a standard psychological test, the Narcissism Personality Inventory, and found that they were 17 percent more narcissistic than the average person. Reality TV stars were the absolute worst of all.
Dr. Drew explains that, from a psychological standpoint, “narcissism” doesn’t mean that stars are in love with themselves but rather that the celebrity behaviors so many seek to emulate grow out of genuine personality disorders rooted in “unbearable feelings of internal emptiness.
When the image in the looking glass disappoints them, or fails in some way, they turn to other solutions. These other solutions—addiction, extreme vanity, sexual drama, and dysfunctional relationships, exploitativeness, and outrageous entitlement—have come to dominate celebrity culture.”
In his view, “the mirror effect” is the result:
We, the viewers, become as narcissistic as the celebrities, adopting all their arrogance, lack of empathy, and sense of entitlement.
“Whenever you choose the entertainment media’s offer of escapism cloaked as ‘news,’ you do so at the expense of a real connection with humankind. You’re anaesthetizing yourself, while reinforcing and amplifying your latent narcissistic traits. You’re abdicating your interest in the world and surrendering to the false image of the world as you wish it to be,” he says.
In other words, we become almost as bad as the egomaniacs, drunken starlets, and arrogant attention-seekers we read about. We become desensitized to the lying philanderers. We start to believe that their squabbles and fashion don’ts and DUIs mean something. We lose touch with what matters.
And, weirdly, even as tabloid media makes us more narcissistic, it also makes us hate what we see in the mirror.
We’ve long known that the more girls and young women read celeb mags or watch music videos and TV, the more they hate their bodies.
The comparisons with the perfectly sculpted (and now always, always Photoshopped) forms of celebs is just demoralizing. In one study of nearly 550 working-class adolescent girls, the majority were dissatisfied with their weight and shape.
Almost 70 percent of the sample stated that pictures in magazines influence their conception of the “perfect” body shape. Further, adolescent girls who were more frequent readers of women’s magazines were more likely to report being influenced to think about the perfect body, to be dissatisfied with their own body, to want to lose weight, and to diet.
Overall, young people who watch TV and soaps and read tabloid magazines have more body dissatisfaction. Furthermore, the more girls identify with television stars or models, the more they experience body dissatisfaction.
Singer Jessica Simpson has said that when she looks at herself, airbrushed and retouched on magazine covers, she wishes she looked like that—because she knows that’s not her. Hell, my cover photo on this book is, of course, professionally retouched.
All of us in the media know that the stylists, hairdressers, makeup artists, and lighting crew work hard to make us look much better than we actually appear off-camera.
Tabloid media’s evil twin is reality TV, which women, especially young women, watch compulsively. A typical example of this popular genre is The Hills, the most successful show in the history of MTV. (I wistfully remember when there was actually music on Music Television.)
During its time on air, it received two to four million viewers, overwhelmingly teenage girls and young women. As far as I can tell from watching most of one episode on Hulu.com until I went numb from boredom, this “loosely scripted” reality show (huh?) follows around the three most self-absorbed young women on the planet. They shop and they fret about romance. They talk endlessly about why they broke up with this boyfriend or may reunite with that one.
They look off longingly into the distance while doleful music plays. They have lunch in Beverly Hills and talk about who they should invite to their beach party. There is a beautiful Malibu beach house, but no one is the least bit grateful for the use of the place, much less the open-ended wardrobe budget.
We have to wonder if these women have ever had a thought in their pretty, empty heads about anyone other than themselves.
One of these breathtakingly self-obsessed young women, Heidi Montag, attempted to launch a singing career with songs like “Superficial,” with the lyric, “I don’t care what they say / It isn’t fair / That I wear diamonds for breakfast,” and “Girls say that I’m conceited ‘cause they really wanna be me.”
That’s her argument that she’s not superficial?
Like other celeb wannabes who clawed their way up from obscurity to fame without any discernable talent, Heidi has no shame about her self-obsession. Apparently she spends nearly all of her free time looking in the mirror, considering expensive medical options to improve her appearance. She readily gave magazine interviews about her “addiction” to plastic surgery.
As the Chicago Sun-Times reported in January 2010:
Reality TV star Heidi Montag confesses in a new interview that, despite her good looks, she is so obsessed with plastic surgery that she recently had 10 procedures—in one day.
“For the past three years, I’ve thought about what to have done,” Montag says in the January 25 issue of People. “I’m beyond obsessed.”
Montag, twenty-three, who had breast augmentation and a nose job in 2007, says she “shopped around” for body parts in the pages of Playboy magazine before she appeared on its cover in September. “When I was shopping for my boobs, I wanted the best,” she says. “So I sat down and flipped through a bunch of Playboys.”
She told People in August that more surgeries were ahead: “I plan to get a few more upgrades. . . . I’m sure as I get older I’ll need some touchups.I think I want to go bigger on my boobs for [husband Spencer].”
Montag’s procedures included:
• Buttocks augmentation
• Boob job touch-up
• Nose job touch-up
• Chin reduction
• Liposuction in her neck
• Liposuction in her waist and thighs
• Mini brow lift
• Botox in the forehead
• Fat injections in her cheeks and lips
• Pinning back her ears
For her brazen “look at me now” attitude about plastic surgery, Montag landed the coveted cover of People magazine, America’s number one celeb weekly. She posed for photographers in Las Vegas later that year with her new G-cup breasts barely contained by her bikini.
I shudder to think how many young women and adolescent girls will follow her lead. Apparently that’s of no concern to Heidi, or at least she hasn’t publicly expressed any concern about that.
Instead, she’s spent years staring in the mirror—“beyond obsessed” in her words—rather than looking outward at what her contribution to the world might be. In return, we glorify and reward her self-absorption with major magazine covers and hit television shows, encouraging girls to be like her.
And every time we watch The Hills or Real Housewives or Keeping Up with the Kardashians, a clump of our brain cells resign in defeat.
So, how did this happen to a people as nice as us?
Incrementally, step by step, each day of school lost to budget cuts, each time we choose to pass up the book store for the shoe store, each time we click on Perez Hilton or “Teen Mom,” each time we participate in glamorizing empty shells of women who define themselves by their resemblance to Barbie rather than by their ideas and accomplishments.
And what a shame, because we’ve come so far, so quickly.
Luckily, we still have time to get back on course.
This is an edited excerpt from Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, by Lisa Bloom. Published by Perseus Books and reproduced here with the publisher’s permission.
Lisa Bloom is an award-winning journalist, legal analyst, trial attorney, and the daughter of renowned women's rights attorney Gloria Allred.
From 2001–2009, Lisa hosted a daily, live, national television show on Court TV. She is currently the CBS News and the CNN Legal Analyst, appearing frequently on The Early Show, and on CNN and HLN prime time shows.
She is a regular legal expert on The Dr. Phil Show and in the last year has guest-hosted Larry King Live, The Early Show, and Showbiz Tonight. She has also appeared on Oprah, Nightline, Today, Good Morning America, Anderson Cooper 360, and more.
Lisa has published numerous popular and scholarly articles in the Los Angeles Times, Family Circle, The National Law Journal, and many more. She has also been profiled, featured, and quoted in many publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Variety.
Lisa graduated early and Phi Beta Kappa from UCLA and then from the Yale Law School. She currently lives in Los Angeles.
Think is a New York Times bestseller. For more information, visit Think.tv.