Thursday, May 5, 2011

This Is Beauty?

One of the challenges in teaching traditional shamanic concepts is translating subtle spiritual principles into vocabulary that is common to our culture.  For instance, if we talk about having a conversation with a deceased relative on another plane of reality, usually the best we can hope for is an odd look from the listener.  However, if we say, "Last night I had a dream about my grandmother," we instantly find ourselves on common ground with the person who is listening to us describe our dream.  When I teach, I tend to use simple, easy to understand phrases rather than allowing my ego to present things in a grandiose manner.  For instance, I prefer to use terms like "untime" and "tomorrow me" instead of explaining the complexity of non-linear time.

So here's a new word for our common vocabulary: filters.

In its simplest form, filters are preconceived ideas that prevent us from clearly seeing what's in front of us.

For instance, let's say we were bitten by a large black dog when we were a child.  Today, as we're walking through our neighborhood, we spot a large black dog wandering without an owner on the sidewalk ahead of us. Perhaps it's a friendly Labrador Retriever. Maybe it's a vicious stray. The thing is, we don't know, but our previous experience has created a "filter" that influences how we see the situation. Chances are we're incapable of approaching the dog in a neutral fashion without first consciously stepping back, disarming our defenses, and centering ourselves.

The concept of filters applies in countless places in our lives. Some filters are beneficial, like the one that tells us, "If you touch that hot stove with your hand, it will burn you."  Others, however, needlessly prejudice our perspective, sometimes to the point that we literally can't see something that is right in front of us.

When we approach any spiritual text, not only are we influenced by our own preconceived ideas regarding that text and what it says, but our own bias toward how we see the Divine also filters what we come across in those pages. For instance, if you hold tightly to the concept of a strong, dominating deity, chances are that concepts which present the divine as compassionate, gentle, and nurturing will simply slip by without registering in your mind. Pieces of the greater truth could be right before our eyes and we won't see them simply because our filters - our preconceived ideas, experiences, and prejudices - get in the way.

The thing that surprises me is that our filters also change how we see ourselves.

Who knows us better than we do? Considering that most spiritual paths call for a certain amount of introspection, we typically know our minds, our hearts, and our bodies reasonably well. For those of us who have taken the opportunity to intimately explore who we are at our core, we spend more time critically looking at our own reflection than any other person in our world.

But that doesn't mean that we don't have filters in place when we do so.

And it doesn't mean that we were the ones who put those filters there.

For instance, in American culture, the following picture is held up as an example of the epitome of beauty.

2003 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition

The vast majority of us have been trained to see this image and immediately think "beautiful." Why would we think that? For just a moment, step back, let go of your preconceived ideas, and take a critical approach to the photograph. For instance, look at the model's upper arms. If she were our sister or daughter we'd be worried about her, encouraging her to eat. What's amazing is that there was a time when we would have looked aghast at this particular photo. Not so long ago, we didn't think that this was beautiful. For comparison, here's the same cover side-by-side with the 1994 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition featuring Kathy Ireland, Elle Macpherson, and Rachel Hunter - widely considered to be three of the most beautiful women on the planet at the time:

side-by-side cover comparison of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit covers

Take a moment and look at the women on the two covers. Only nine years separates the two examples of beauty. How many of you think the woman on the left is more beautiful than the women on the right? Honestly? How many of you, when you saw "The Dream Team" from 1994, responded with, "Oh my god, they were so fat," in some part of your mind?

Those instant judgments are an example of filters. Back in 1994, the three women on that magazine cover were considered the height of beauty; now were amazed at how "chunky" those models were back then. We find ourselves asking, "How did I not see that?"  What changed? No one went back in time and altered the photos of the three women on the cover. Why do we perceive them so differently now? It's simple. We were given new filters, told that something new was beautiful - and we believed them.

Newsweek recently published a piece called, Unattainable Beauty: The Decade's Most Egregious Retouching Scandals detailing how women's bodies are distorted, reshaped, and changed after the photographs are taken to meet a standard of beauty the is unattainable by any of us - including the models themselves. In the piece, after seeing her retouched photograph in British GQ, actress Kate Winslet was quoted as saying, "I do not look like that, and more importantly, I don't desire to look like that." Ms. Winslet's legs had been extended to make them longer than they were and her waist had been slimmed down well beyond her real appearance.

To understand what goes in to presenting us with "beauty," Dove created their Real Beauty campaign. The following video, directed by Tim Piper, demonstrates what goes into the "beauty" process. This is how the standard of beauty that we're given is achieved. Pay special attention to what happens to the image after the photo is taken.

"Evolution" directed by Tom Piper

This type of photo manipulate is extremely common in the magazine industry. According to their website, DigitalRetouch, Inc. "...specializes in celebrity, fashion and digital retouching for photographic images. Digital post-production can provide a 'nip and tuck'... Our retouchers pride themselves by leaving behind no evidence of their transformations." With an extensive client list that includes GQ Magazine, Oprah Magazine, countless publications and more than 100 celebrities, they are an industry leader in the retouching field. If you visit their site, be sure to click on the links labeled "correction," "shaping," and "manipulation" on the right hand side of the screen to see their portfolio of before and after work changing how people look in photographs. Much of it is adjusting lighting and settings, but you'll be surprised how seamlessly they can make a person taller, thinner, or more closely resemble what the industry thinks beauty looks like. On certain photos, when I moved the slider slowly to observe the sometimes dramatic changes, I was shocked and amazed.

And this unattainable version of beauty is what we're being confronted with every day. These images and ideas of beauty eventually get lodged inside our minds and they change how we see things. They become filters. Beautiful becomes ugly. Healthy becomes fat. To understand how this process works, Mr. Piper created another video for Dove's Real Beauty campaign.

"Onslaught" directed by Tom Piper

If you don't believe that the message is effective at changing how we see beauty, keep in mind that according to the American Society for Aesthetic and Plastic Surgery, Americans spent more than $13 billion on cosmetic surgery and non-surgical procedures (such as Botox) in 2007 alone. That's $13 billion spent to alter the way that we look.

Closing our minds and walking without thinking has certainly changed what we think, giving us new filters. Not only are we spending billions of dollars each year to alter our bodies, but we've given birth to new phrases and new ideas.

Pro-Ana: Pro-anorexia movement for those who have the eating disorder and, as they say, "are not ready to recover." Those in the pro-Ana movement will often wear red bracelets to identify themselves so they can offer each other encouragement not to eat. They'll often trade extreme diets (300 to 400 calories a day, broken by periodic fasts, while working out for 30 minutes five days a week) and support each other on long fasts. (Bulimia is pro-Mia and they were blue bracelets).

Thinspiration or "thinspo" - inspirational material (quotes and images) for keeping one's self thin. An example of thinspiration is something like this:
"Sometimes I am hungry. I'm always hungry. But when I don't eat I feel good. Pure. I feel empty and it's wonderful. I feel so powerful. Like I could fly."
Filters are powerful things. When we hold up an unhealthy image, one that is often manipulated to the point that even the model can't achieve it, people listen. Some of us believe that what we're shown is really the definition of beauty. Some of us try to become what we've been told is beautiful.

This could as easily been about men as it is about women. The pressure to be the confident, brilliant, brave, wealthy, attractive guy with the killer smile, who lasts a minimum of forty minutes in bed, dispenses multiple orgasms like they're Tic-Tacs, and not only finds time for a career, friends, relationships, and outside pursuits, but still somehow has time to go to the gym to maintain his sculpted body and washboard abs is fairly overwhelming from the male perspective. The pendulum is swinging and men are feeling increasingly inferior to the images we're compared to. Ask any guy, "Do you feel this way? Do you feel inferior to this guy in the media?" and they'll most likely tell you, "No." Why? Because if we admit to feeling this way, we're just that much farther from being confident, brilliant, and brave.

We see things the way we do because of filters - preconceived ideas and prejudices that change how we see the reality around us.  There's an entire industry that is focused on putting these filters in place.  It's why we buy things that we don't really need - even if somewhere, somehow, we think that we do.  The work of Edward Bernays established the foundation for our modern political and commercial advertising campaigns.  As he explained, "If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits."

George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics and UC Berkeley explains how words created filters in an article from The Huffington Post. "It's all in the brain. Words activate frame-and-metaphor circuits, which in turn activate worldview circuits. Whenever brain circuitry is activated, the synapses get stronger, and the circuits are easier to activate again."

Images do this, as we see in the case of beauty. Words do this and are consciously used in politics to move people to action and to influence their ideas.

On January 29, 2002, during his State of the Union Address, former United States President George W. Bush used the phrase "Axis of Evil" to describe governments (specifically Iran, Iraq, and North Korea) that he was accusing of terrorism and seeking weapons of mass destruction. Is there really an Axis of Evil? Do they meet in a secret base somewhere under their intimidating logo, plotting to overthrow the world? No. The phrase was coined by former Bush speechwriter David Frum drawing upon Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech delivered on December 8, 1941 after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. It was originally presented as "the axis of hatred" but Bush changed it to "the axis of evil."

The phrase draws upon the Axis powers of World War II. Words carry power. We are indoctrinated from an early age that the Allies were the righteous and the Axis were the soldiers of nightmares and atrocities almost from our earliest exposure to world history. According to Professor Lakoff, when we hear the words, Axis of Evil, those words "activate frame-and-metaphor circuits, which in turn activate worldview circuits." In other words, we start a chain reaction of filters that influence what we see and how we perceive. Those words were specifically chosen to inspire us to go to war.

It's why we didn't "invade" Iraq or Afghanistan, but are fighting the "war on terror." Are we really fighting terror? Will that particular emotional response be wiped from the human experience when we are finally victorious? No. Those words are intentionally chosen to trigger a response within us. Perhaps the manipulation is easiest to see when you realize that we're told that the enemy has "weapons of mass destruction" while we maintain a "nuclear arsenal." Think about those words for just a moment. "Weapons" implies something that is ready to be used while "arsenal" is a place where weapons are stored, not even the weapons themselves. Ours is "nuclear" which most of us associate with science or energy; the enemy's intention is clear through the words "mass destruction." You will never hear the United States government refer to its own nuclear weapons as "weapons of mass destruction," even though (according to the Brookings Institute) the US has 10,600 nuclear weapons in its stockpile with 7,982 of those currently deployed.

It's the same reason why conservative politicians choose words like "big government" and "socializing health care" when the topic of health insurance for all Americans comes up. After all, we're told that the United States is a democracy. Do we really want to embrace socialism? (Ironically, neither are accurate. We're not a democracy, we're a republic. If you're an American, you do not vote on every law that Congress considers - you elect the members of Congress who vote on those issues). What if instead of Universal Health Care, we stated that we're in "a medical emergency" and right now "The Corporation" will "refuse to allow you to see a doctor" if you're sick or injured? Suddenly people are listening. It's the same reason why we start to tune out when we hear people talk about environmentalism. What if they talked about "community poisoning" instead?

Words are powerful. Images even more so. Both change not only our opinion, but how we think and how we see the world around us.

With this in mind, perhaps the question we should ask ourselves is, "What other filters are we allowing to be put into place?"

Or better yet, "Who are you, as a unique, amazing individual? What are your truths? How do you see the world? What do you believe? Why do you believe it? Are you living your life by those beliefs or are you being influenced by filters that have often intentionally been put in place?"

If you haven't stopped to ask yourself those questions and reach those answers for yourself, maybe it's time to do so.

I originally wrote the core of this piece back on February 10, 2010.  It has been expanded for my blog.


  1. Wow! certainly gets you thinking! Great Blog!

  2. Absolutely Fantastic Jeffrey! WORDS!! :)<3

  3. Speaking of evolution, you could probably look at my past compliments as proof that it happens. I shall supply further evidence.

    I'm six feet tall and nearly 300 pounds with one hell of a beer gut on me, and some moobs that would make these scrawny model chicks jealous along with stretch marks that look like I brawled with a mama grizzly. Am I attractive? HELL YES! It's all about attitude, confidence, and being a good person. Just because I'm the prototype for physical failure in the eyes of the jet-setting society doesn't mean I'm not the pinnacle of awesome in the eyes of those who matter. I manage to work two jobs, hang out with friends and family, and still have time for video games. If society doesn't look looking at me, fine by me. Turn your heads! If you can't accept me for who and what I am, pound sand! THIS IS OUR WORLD.. NOT JUST YOURS! Time for work.. Grizzly Bear VANISH!

  4. past COMMENTS.. derp. Need more rockstar lol

  5. "Beauty pressure." This one brought tears to my eyes. So true, so sad. No wonder so many people struggle with their self image.

  6. I've sat down and gone over this concept with each of our children - almost daily. They're beautiful *because* of their differences, not because they're just like someone else. Each uniqueness is celebrated and admired. I've also watched the videos with the older kids (one-on-one) and we've talked about the concepts at length. I think it's important to illuminate these concepts early and say, "You're beautiful because you're YOU." Whether it works or not, they're all happy, confident, and have loads of self-esteem. :)

  7. Wow... this sure is a blog that hits really close to home. Unfortunately, even if parent's talk to their kids prior to the media (as the Onslaught Dove movie recommends), their own helpful "suggestions" are something just as disastrous, if not more so.

    Thank you VERY much for that side-by-side comparison of the swim-suit models. That's a huge eye-opener...