Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Telling ourselves better stories

Last night I got my hair colored and cut, which meant I had a lot of time to sit and read the magazines at the beauty shop. I picked up a copy of Elle, which I never read, and was sucked in to a weird world of cosmetic surgery and high-end beauty maintenance. I found out things I never knew about the mechanics of a facelift and the various pads of fat on your face and which ones start to sag first. The world of Elle readers is obviously a more moneyed place than the one in which I live, and it's one where I would not want to live. The surgically perfected body and face is not only the ultimate status symbol in that world, it's an obligation. I am hoping that most of the readers actually do not think this way, but I'm not so sure. Then there was a little essay by a male writer on "Barefoot Cinderellas," which was a musing on how the writer finds beauty in the chubby, the old, the four-eyed, and the flat-chested. This might have had the potential to be charming if he had not made it so clear that he found these women attractive partially because he was "confident [he] would face little competition" for their favors and if he did not seem sort of amazed by his own magnanimity in his unconventional tastes. Newsflash for this writer: You don't deserve a medal for going after the fat chick because you think she'll be an easy lay. Seriously. The whole thing reminded me of the "Loving a Larger Woman" story that played such a prominent role in Jennifer Weiner's Good in Bed (her first and still her best novel). I wonder if Walter Kirn was the original Bruce Guberman. I think this essay was designed to be a cautionary tale for those few Elle readers who thought that there might be some value in "inner beauty." You can almost hear the Elle editors laughing from here at the very thought.

How many women do you know who buy Kirn's idea that any of us who are imperfect in some way need to feel grateful for a man's attention, even to the point that we should work hard to keep it. I know I've been there. I loaned men money (never to get it back, of course), helped them with their homework, even put up with some really awful treatment just because I didn't think I deserved better. Somewhere along the line we need to start telling ourselves we deserve better. I think that's why the "Dancing Queen" scene in Mama Mia is so empowering. It's sort of a message to women to stop buying that kind of line.

Yesterday I was listening to NPR and there was a story about John McCain's difficulties finding a consistent, compelling narrative that could capture the imagination of voters. During the course of the campaign, he kept auditioning new narratives: the maverick narrative, the guy who could cross party lines, the dealmaker, the comeback kid, the guy who stuck to his guns, the guy who was above partisan politics, etc. These narratives were problematic because they started to contradict each other and turned into a "John McCain vs. John McCain" narrative.

I think it's true that as human beings, we're natural storytellers. The key to serious change might just be finding a better storyline for ourselves. Watching "The Biggest Loser" last night, I saw how the show has transformed the story for the contestants from "I am so fat and hopeless, I need to do whatever it takes," to a couple of new storylines. One is, "I'm an athlete." I see this on Jillian's team, mostly. The contestants start to focus on all the amazing things they're learning to do, and the weight loss is mostly a side effect. On the Blue Team, the dominant narrative is about gameplay. They are completely satisfied to manipulate their weight loss to get rid of players they don't like or perceive as threats. Either narrative changes the focus to something that makes the contestants feel powerful.

I think that maybe part of my problem is that somewhere along the way I lost focus on the narrative that really worked for me, the triathlete in training. Along the way I became just another dieter. It's hard to get excited about a storyline where losing is winning and the way to win is to be satisfied with less. Training for a race is all about power and intensity, so I think it's time to get back in touch with my inner athlete. I caught a glimpse of her the other day when I noticed my muscle definition in the mirror, and a little more of her yesterday, when I couldn't wait to get out for a run in the park.


  1. Very motivating and well-written. I enjoy following your blog for inspiration along the way.

  2. Just dropping in and catching up. Thanks for the recommendation on the Intuitive Eating Book. Your blog is a worthwhile read.

  3. Good thoughts here, as always. "A storyline of losing is winning and the way to win is to be satisfied with less" sounds blah and not where I want to be, however true a story it may be. I'll have to give some thought to what my narrative was or could be if I just looked for it.

    You? I always saw you as an athlete. I'm glad you are seeing that in yourself again.


"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07