Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year, Same Old You

Much as I love the Holidays I won't lie to you, I don't like New Year's. It's not because I don't like the notion of change, renewal, or a sort of rebirth almost, but what I like least of all is the notion that who you are right now isn't enough and that the person you might become will be better than the person you see when you look in the mirror this morning. By those standards none of us will ever be enough, for ourselves, for our friends, family, society, whatever it may be. We judge and measure ourselves based upon an image of personal perfection that we'll never be able to live up to because when tomorrow becomes today you're going to be just as critical.

When all the inevitable motivation posts hit the web today through the end of the week titled "New Year, New You". Don't read them. I can guarantee not one of them is going to tell you something you didn't already know, be it about yourself or about the world or about what you need to do to change the person you're tired of being. What's most important is that you know the person you are right now, in this moment, is enough. They're enough to make the change.

We have no other option than to live in the present. Make amends for any of your past wrong doings but carry no regrets. The past is the past and will never catch back up to the present. It's time to let it go.

Make plans for the changes you'd like to see in yourself but know that those changes will not come tomorrow. Change is the result of hard work plus time, and time is always a variable. Whatever this change is you want to see in yourself in the new year know that it might not come in a week, in a month, even in an entire year, but it will come. What's important is to continue working hard toward it. The work is what's important, not necessarily the change.

What humbles men and women is not the rewards for their work, but the work itself. The quickest way to cause someone to lose their faith is to answer all their prayers. When someone has everything they want, what need have they for faith, for God, for anything? You must remain hungry for change, constantly. The only way to remain grounded, humble, and successful is to never stop working as hard as you can toward whatever it is you want and to never give up. If you obtain the thing you're working for, set a new goal. Life's not done with you yet. There's only one end and none of us want to meet it prematurely. So until that end arrives, stay hungry. Always.

Know that you can never be anyone other than who you are in the present, so you have no other option than to either be pleased or displeased with that person. Simple as that. If you can't be anyone else then work on ways to love yourself more because you deserve to be loved, not just by others but by you. No one will be a harsher critic or a more proud supporter of you than yourself.

In life you're either going to be your own best friend or you biggest enemy. Quit working against yourself and get out of your own way when oftentimes it's us standing in our own path to success. There's a talented, powerful, incredible individual inside each of us and you've got to let them out, but first your biggest enemy needs to get out of the way and if they don't you've got to force them aside. Break down walls, kick through doors, burn down buildings of the mind and spirit if that's what it takes to locate and bring out the you, you truly can be. Stop at nothing, and I mean nothing, to find that person. They're only hiding because you put them there. Because you were afraid. The first step toward true change is overcoming your fears. Fear can keep you hungry but it can also get in the way. Find the balance.

Be prepared and grateful when you fail, it's a learning experience. Failure is not the end and it isn't necessarily a step backward. Failure is fuel for the fire. It'll burn, it'll hurt, and it might scar, but it's a visual and visceral reminder of what you've learned on the road of life. And this road is not comfortable or easy either. It's bumpy, rocky, jagged, and switch backed. If the road to change and subsequently the road of life were a straight shot it'd be boring and you'd be a single celled organism. But you're not. You're a living, breathing human being. Be glad that you are capable of making mistakes and rectifying them. Crazy as that sounds it's a sign that you're special and different from the rest of the animal kingdom. If you stumble or fall, bow your head, grit your teeth, and get back up. Every day is not you working closer toward the end, it is you beginning your journey anew with each dawn. Recognize that and be glad for it. The past is gone and the future will never come. All you have is who you are right now.

If you have a desire to make changes in your life, cast away the notion of the "New Year, New You" which is dreadful for your psyche and your health. If you want to make a change, don't wait for January 1st or for Monday or for the first of the following month. Change starts now. Not tomorrow, not next week, and not five minutes from now. Throw away your New Year's resolution and make a resolution for life. Remember in life that the only constant is change. So why resist it? They say "be the change you want to see in the world", but don't neglect yourself trying to please everyone else. Most important on the road to change is the self must come first to give you the proper perspective on how to change the world. If you can't change yourself how can you expect to change anyone else?

If your resolution gets off track, stop. Don't just blindly barrel on down that road until it becomes a dead end and you're forced to turn around and come back. If you're trying to work out more, lose weight, eat better, study more, drink less, be a more devoted spouse or partner, whatever it is, if it gets off track stop and reassess. Take your lumps but buck up and keep the faith. If you remain hungry, you'll always find a way back onto your resolute path.

The value of your life is not necessarily measured by your successes but by how you respond to your mistakes.

Be where you are right now. Be present. Be mindful. Be grateful for your life and take heart knowing the person you will become is not imaginary. That person is you right now, but you've got to work to reveal them. Every successful woman and man started as a massive slab of marble. The beautiful sculpture lies waiting inside to be revealed. It's there. I promise. Maybe it's only an idea or a concept at the moment, but you've got to start chipping away at the exterior in or to reveal it. Achieving a higher sense of self and purpose is not an ethereal reward bestowed upon you from the heavens after the work has been done, you've got to give the rewards to yourself.

If God truly does has a "plan" for us, it's up to us to make that plan. No one else is pulling your strings. You have free will. It's up to you to decide whether or not that's a blessing or a curse.

There is no heavier burden to bear than that of a great potential. Feel it. Let it tear you, rip you, and take you down. Feel it's weight as it crushes you. That's good. That's fire. That's your fire. That's the weight of the amazing person you can become. Now bite down, brace yourself, and stand up. Don't try to put the fire out because it burns, fan the flames and let it scorch the person you used to be. From those ashes will arise the person you know you can become.

This person you're destined to become is locked away inside and only you have the key. They're not waiting for the world to change around them, they're not waiting for your family to change or for your friends to change, they're waiting on YOU to change. Make the change, unlock the door, and let them out.

Live a life others would want to read as a book.

Happy New Year everyone. Don't wait until tomorrow. The future is forever becoming the present. Live in it and be happy with who you are now because that person is enough, but know each passing moment is a step further on your road to becoming your best self. It's going to hurt and it's going to be hard. Good. If it were easy we'd all just quit.

Don't forget that cliches exist because they're truthful. Like all the cliches you just read above.

Monday, December 1, 2014

I Am a Poor Boy Too...

I am a poor boy too…

One of my least favorite Christmas songs for the majority of my life has been “The Little Drummer Boy”. I can’t really explain why. Maybe the constant ‘parumpumpumpum’ing got on my nerves. I never really like the Rankin and Bass animated short because, even by its standards when made in 1968, it still looked cheap. But as I grow older Christmas has come to mean many different things for me, as it should for everyone. Obviously each year I write a lot about it. I find that there are few other times that inspiration strikes as strongly. Maybe Halloween. Maybe Summer. Alright, maybe I just love Christmas.

But recently I was listening to what has become my favorite rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy” by Josh Groban from his CD Noel. Something about the fullness of that version (probably the bagpipes) just lit me up and I couldn’t help but get teary eyed. And I think it was because that had been the first time I really truly listened to the lyrics. And I don’t mean listen as in heard them, I’ve had the words memorized since I was six, but I mean this is the first time the words really landed and had an impact of me, now some twenty years later.

Regardless of what you believe I think it’s still possible to let yourself be affected and even changed by the simple, relatable nature of different belief systems. I may not classify myself as a Buddhist or a Taoist, but I have read and studied them a great deal and allowed them to resonate with and affect me. At Christmastime, there tend to be three camps of folks who discuss “the true meaning of Christmas”.

  1. Far right/ extreme Christians who feel it’s only about Jesus’ birthday and celebrating anything other than that is wrong and sinful and if you want a TV for Christmas you’re selfish and if you sit down to Hanukah dinner with your neighbor you’re running the risk of blasphemy and also Santa is a rearranged anagram for his true identity: S A T A N.
  2. Cynics and “rationalists” who think Religion, and Christianity in particular, is stupid and that Linus’ speech in A Charlie Brown Christmas is preachy because Christmas is actually and amalgamation of traditions stolen from the Pagan Holiday celebration Yule so you should feel stupid for believing in magic or miracles and grateful to them for believing in reason and science and making your better by posting photos from the “I F*cking Love Science” Facebook page explaining away silly beliefs and informing you that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is, in fact, God’s true secret identity.
  3. People who just like to be happy and want others to be happy and do their own thing so they’re pretty chill about whatever goes on during the Holidays.

I like to think I fall into the third camp. But we’re all familiar with the other two and probably want to beat our heads against a wall when the Holidays come around.

The point to that mini rant is to explain the perspective that, hey, it’s Christmas, so let’s just relax. You can find value in all walks of life and all belief systems. So long as no one gets hurt, you do you BooBoo. You don’t even have to believe Jesus was a real guy to be affected by his story or by the story of those who came to celebrate his birth. History suggests a lot of contrary things about the birth of Jesus, mostly that he probably wasn’t even born in the Winter. But the nature of embellished stories can still inspire people to feel something deep and poignant, and sometimes even blatant fiction is the best driving force to get people to do something good for their fellow man. And that is the story that goes along with the The Little Drummer Boy.

Nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of a kid with a drum. But as the song goes, the little drummer boy hears of Jesus’ birth and decides he will go see the child and celebrate his birth because the rumor is he’s going to grow up to be someone pretty special.

Let’s let the little drummer boy’s story speak for itself through the song’s lyrics.

Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum
A new born King to see, pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,
So to honor Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
When we come.
Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum
That’s fit to give the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,
Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum,
On my drum?
Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,
Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum.

I spent that brief moment above justifying that it’s okay to believe whatever you want because I’m asking you to let yourself be affected by the real heart of this song. It’s going to require some of you going with me on a hypothetical journey, but I find life is a lot easier and certainly a lot more beautiful and rewarding when we do.

If you’d heard the news that the savior of all mankind had been born and all your friends were tugging at your arm saying, “Come on! Come on! We have to go see him!” What would you do? Would you drop everything you were doing and go? Or would you balk and think, “But I haven’t a gift to bring that fit to give a King.”

A lot of the time, regardless of belief, our human nature has us telling ourselves we’re not worthy. We get self conscious and scared and second guess who we are, how we’ll look, what we’ll do or say; especially at times like Christmas, when expectations seem so high.

It might seem surprising but I really don’t like getting gifts. Christmas, Birthday, whatever it is, I really feel strange when someone gives me something. I have trouble receiving them because I immediately think to myself, “Oh no! What will I get this person in return?” And it’s a terribly selfish way to act since most of the time we give things without expecting anything in return. That’s the true nature of giving. I also clam up because I’m not terribly clever at coming up with what tangible gifts to get people. I measure my ability to give in the time spent with people. Good conversation, enjoying food and drinks together, laughing, singing, joking, whatever it may be. That’s my favorite type of giving and receiving; simply spending time with the ones you love.

And so the little drummer boy had the same dilemma. What do you give to the baby who has everything? He is the son of God after all, what could he possibly need? And if you go empty handed you run the risk of looking foolish standing next to three wise men who’ve brought along frankincense, myrrh, and even gold. Better not to go then. Better not run the risk of embarrassing yourself and embarrassing God by not bringing his son something he deserves. You’re just a poor boy with a drum and tattered clothes. Surely you are a disgrace in the presence of the Lord.

Most of us wouldn’t go. It’s like feeling like you can’t go to church because you don’t own any nice, expensive, or fancy clothes. It’s not taking a chance because you’re afraid of failure and embarrassment under the judging eye of someone or something “Holy”. But the most important thing to remember is that God is not human. God doesn’t wear ties or suits, dresses or skirts. God doesn’t collect physical possessions and has no use for them. So why on earth would we think that what we offer up as our gift to God should be something tangible? It isn’t to say it’s wrong. The idea is that you simply give from your heart, the best way you can. You give openly and freely because you love God, not because you are afraid of him. So many cultures used to, and still do, offer up animal sacrifices to him. But God doesn’t want bloodshed. God wants your love. God just wants you, whoever that person may be; man, woman, or child, straight, gay, or transgender. If you’re giving from the heart, no gift is too big or too small. We are all equal in the eyes of God.

But the little drummer boy remembered, “I do have something! I have my drum! I’ll play for him on my drum!”

And so he traveled far, a dangerous journey for such a young kid, in order to reach the child everyone had been talking about. And he stood quietly behind all those who came to praise the baby. They laid down their gifts for him, some extravagant, some small and meager, and finally, when all eyes turned to the little drummer boy he stood there in silence, holding his drum.

“Little baby,” He said as he approached the young Jesus, not worrying himself with many of the judgmental eyes that were on him. The whispering voices could easily be heard. Some thought he was cute, others felt he sullied the Lord with his presence. But, much as children do, the baby Jesus had no need for judgment. Neither did his parents Joseph and Mary. They had both come from immense poverty and traveled a journey similar to the drummer boy’s.

“I am a poor boy too.” The drummer boy said as he observed Jesus’ tattered and plain surroundings. He was born in a barn! The drummer boy thought the son of God would’ve been born on a golden throne, in a castle, surrounded by servants, money, and feasting. But here he was, surrounded by farm animals, lying in a pile of hay. It brought a strange joy to him as he spoke.

“I have no gifts to bring.” The drummer said timidly, looking from Jesus to his parents. “But…” he stammered. “Shall I play for you? On my drum?”

Mary nodded. And he played. The little drummer boy played his best for the baby Jesus because it was all he knew how to do. He had no money, hardly any clothes, and certainly not much respect in the eyes of the elite, but he did have a little drum. And he could play it well.

And as he played, something amazing happened. The baby Jesus, the son of God, God himself even, smiled at him. He smiled at the little drummer boy and at his drum because this gift had been more than enough to give. His talent, something given from the heart, was worth more than anything else he could’ve given, more than all the riches on earth.

And many years later, that baby who grew into a great Rabbi would impart the same lesson to his disciples, the lesson taught to him by a poor, honest, worthy little drummer boy.

“Jesus sat down near the collection box in the Temple and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins.

Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.’” Mark 12:41-44

Christmas, whether or not the story of Jesus’ birth seems relevant to you, is about giving. Not just giving in the hopes of appeasing or giving out of obligation, but giving from the heart. Any gift given from the heart is a worthy gift, and any person not willing to recognize that a gift they receive, although meager, coming from their givers heart is a person who is not worthy to receive such a special gift. It doesn’t mean they can’t be worthy, but it means their focus is on receiving only tangible things, things that, if they were to burn to the ground, would be gone forever. As that little baby would one day go on to say:

"Don't store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.” – Matthew 6:19-21

Gifts that come from the heart cannot fade. Even if they are physical items, the spirit within them will never die. Even if a photograph is lost, a painting is destroyed, or a house is toppled, the spirit lives forever. The little drummer boy is proof of that.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Classic Feminist Cinema, 3 You (Probably) Haven't Seen

I took a feminist film studies course when I was in college and quite enjoyed it. I don't think I had any expectations since I was still fairly new to film theory at the time. In the years since, obviously, I've become a rabid cinephile, especially of the classics. From that course I learned a great deal about women in film and to this day much of it still determines how I break down and analyze films. But the further I delve into the greats that made Hollywood the legend it now is the more I feel modern audiences take little time to appreciate the women who not only made Hollywood incredible amounts of money but also had to fight tooth and nail to get to where they were and have even a shadow's amount of power compared to the men of the same Hollywood era.

So many of these actresses are not forgotten but more-so neglected by a majority of today's male and female audiences as they find more interest in pictures like Blue Jasmine, American Hustle, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Divergent, or even Twilight. I think that's perfectly alright considering we're all a product of our times. And though I do think all those films have their merits (yes, even Twilight) and can do wonderful things for young girls, just like in the textbooks there's a lot of  history to be found on various subjects in the movies. I still hold to the fact that things are better today than they were 50 or more years ago, especially in Hollywood. (I said better, not perfect.) But there's a lot to be learned from the women that starred on the silver screen long before J-Law and Cate Blanchett.

I think we Universally reflect this attitude that the discrimination we face today is as bad if not worse than it has been historically and I think that's just how everyone feels when they're young and opinionated. But if we could go back into time 50 years you'd find a much harsher, more rule laden world than what we have now, especially for women and minorities, and especially for their roles in Hollywood. Actresses like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Myrna Loy, Ginger Rogers, Katherine Hepburn, and Lucille Ball just to name a few. (And there were many.) Davis, for instance, had so much star power in getting big pictures made that she was dubbed "the fifth Warner Brother".

Barbara Stanwyck was reviled by many "traditional" men and women of the time for playing characters that were transgressive and encouraged women to be in possession of their sexuality.

Frank and Ernest comic strip writer Bob Thaves famously said of Ginger Rogers and her in comparison to her screen partner Fred Astaire that, "Sure he was great. But don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards and in high heels."

Myrna Loy famously lobbied against racism and against discrimination in Hollywood. "Why does every black person in the movies have to play a servant?" She asked MGM execs in 1934. "How about a black person walking up the steps of a courthouse carrying a briefcase?"

 Lucille Ball was THE first female studio head in Hollywood. It doesn't get bigger than that.

To really put things in perspective, Katherine Hepburn, who said she was "unaware that women were a second rate sex," was one of the first female screen legends to make women wearing pants popular. She said, "I realized long ago that skirts are hopeless. Any time I hear a man say he prefers a woman in a skirt I say, 'Try one. Try a skirt.'" Her biographer Christopher Anderson said, "She is the person who put women in pants, literally and figuratively. She is the greatest star, the greatest actress that Hollywood has ever produced."

I think many actresses today are furthering the effort of equality in cinema and in Hollywood. Cate Blanchett's recent Academy Awards acceptance speech wonderfully reflects that women "are not a 'niche' audience." I'm fairly certain that the only people who don't like Jennifer Lawrence are crazy people and her attitude toward the Hollywood elitism is refreshing and real.

I think much of today's Hollywood royalty, like those who came before them, are just as powerful, interested, and passionate about pursuing equality in film. I don't seek to diminish or lessen the importance of women in contemporary cinema but rather illuminate the classic actresses I grew up watching whom I really love and value for being some of the first to start shaking things up and pave the way for the women of today.

Baby Face (1933)

Widely regarded as an early protofeminist film (the movement before it had the name, recognition, and steam it does today), Baby Face is a wonderful pre-code (The Hays Code) picture about Lily (Barbara Stanwyck), a former speakeasy bartender who's often forced by her father to sleep with his customers in order to keep his business afloat. Upon learning of her power over men, Lily makes a break for New York City in order to use her sexual charm to climb her way up to the top of a the Gotham Trust.

What's tricky with proto-feminism films is that on the surface or based on an initial summary they come across as being wildly sexist. Often times these were men telling tales of women the ways they wanted so the feminist perspective in classic cinema isn't as it is today, which can be portrayed by women for women or by people who truly understand the movement. Classically, you're looking at men, or women with pen names or acting as a background influence, trying to make statement that turns a traditional genre on its head. Proto-feminist cinema falls more under this type of film making or storytelling.

Baby Face is reflective of early feminist films because it treats Lily as its hero. Unlike some films of the late 70's and 80's which seemed to reflect this sort of "revenge on or punishing of women", classic films like Baby Face were profound for treating the female protagonist exactly the same (or as close as it could come) as it would a male. If, hypothetically, it were a film about a man sleeping his way to the top there would be little rancor for a character like this. A male audience would likely cheer him on for being "a man" and women would be further forced to remain silent and accept the discrimination in practice that a man is just allowed to do these things and a woman is not. So Baby Face was one of the first of its time to really empower a woman with her sexuality the way men have been portrayed as being empowered with theirs. No one questions a man's sexuality (unless it concerns homosexuality) in film because he's "cool", "suave", and "manly".

And Barbara Stanwyck doesn't play a sort of Glenn Close ala Fatal Attraction here. She's not crazy or insane or a temptress seeking to upset a "perfect" family. Fatal Attraction is a prime example of a setback in feminist (the revenge on women themes I mentioned above) cinema since Michael Douglas' character, a seemingly happy, perfectly content married business man, is tempted by Glenn Close who seeks to destroy his marriage and his family since she is so wildly obsessed with him. Eventually (spoilers) she wants to kill them all and boils their child's pet rabbit in a pot. Unsurprisingly the film ends with Close dead and Douglas' wife and children forgiving him, smiling, hugging, happy it's all behind them now. All is well THE END.

Close's character in Fatal Attraction, Alex Forrest, is completely unsympathetic because she is completely crazy. She's also the mouthpiece for a male film maker who displays little regard for women in film and considers the independent, working, business woman (like Alex) to be insane and the complacent, innocent housewife (Douglas' wife Beth) to be the "ideal woman" who loves and forgives her man no matter his transgressions. So in films like this the concept of women being on an equal playing field as a man is first punished and then these "dangerous" women are put in their place, which is six feet under.

Baby Face uses Lily in the complete opposite way Fatal Attraction uses Alex Forrest. Lily is a victim of abuse and has long suffered at the hands of her father and his customers who've raped and assaulted her. She's grown a hard shell because of it and, rather than consider herself a victim and act helpless, she takes her revenge out on men. It's a nice flip from the traditional more commonly held gender roles in film. And this revenge isn't psychotic or crazy but clear and calculated and there is an end to these means. She isn't just sort of skipping along the busy streets of New York, willingly giving herself to anyone who'll have her, no, she's playing Chess with the rich businessmen of the big apple and she's the Queen, the most powerful piece on the board and taking the pawns one by one.

The film also portrays these wealthy businessmen as idiots and fools who let the blood rush to their penises rather than their brains. But, in all honesty, that's much the reputation that these type of men really do have. Society embraces and allows men to mistreat women, but if a woman commits the same act she's immediately Hester Prynne. Even the bible condones a man divorcing and remarrying but a woman who has been divorced is committing adultery if she remarries. I'm sorry, what?

So it's easy for Lily to climb her way up the ladder because she's the only one with any real power in the film and is thus it's hero and protagonist. The men she seduces and soon replaces are old white men from old money or young white men from old money. None of them show clear skills or business savvy, rather they represent how much of the outside world views the heads of big business; as rich, greedy know-nothings.

But, as is true to form of most all classic films, Lily finds her man. Most modern audiences would consider this a betrayal to the grounds its laid as a feminist film, but context is key with any argument, especially one being analyzed historically as the beginnings of a movement. And it's one of the reasons people avoid studying classic films with a feminist eye, because they don't consider them valid to the contemporary argument. But we have to remember that, without films like these, the contemporary argument would be very different and likely not as powerful. The idea of Lily, basically, winning the game of chess and empowering herself is achieved. She has everything she wants and needs. Though even someone seeking self empowerment or self actualization can understand that no human being, male or female, deserves to be destroyed in order for us to get what we want. Because of this Lily is the perfect example of a proto-femnist film hero. She's not so callous or selfish or insane that she's willing to go down with the ship so long as it means killing all the evil men on board. She is a real human being with a heart and a conscious and she uses them. Some of the men she's toyed with have died as a result of her and she doesn't consider herself completely innocent. And she understands that this sort of thing can't go on forever or else she will become the same type of person who abused her in her past. So rather than become her own worst enemy she falls in love instead.

That might sound simple and like a typical male film maker tying a neat little bow on a cute kind of, sort of feminist picture but when you consider what it means for the films that would follow, it's truly ground breaking. The film was even cited as one of the top ten main reasons why the Hays Code was enacted in the first place. Because it was edgy, brave, and displayed the sexual empowerment of a woman, society wanted it, and all films like it, gone and forgotten because they were "dangerous" and "bad" for the public. Simply because of the fact that it still exists and can be studied as a prime example of early feminist cinema shows you can't keep a good film down and that, in the long run, you cannot suppress a powerful and important movement.

The Thin Man (1934)

Few films truly define what a modern genre has become as much as the "screwball comedy". The way most audiences think of comedies today, especially romantic comedies, fundamentally come from screwball comedies. I read a nice definition of the genre recently that really hit the nail on the head, and that is a male-female dynamic in which the female dominates both the relationship and the male and in turn challenges his masculinity. Beautiful.

A lot of films in this genre are flawless and each of them would make prime examples of early feminist films, particularly It Happened One NightMy Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby, Ball of Fire, and The Philadelphia Story to name a few personal favorites. All of these display strong female protagonists acting opposite men often regarded as "strong" or "masculine" and rob them of the way they're used to being treated by women who often belittle them amidst a slew of funny mishaps and errors that cause the two to fall in love.

As is typical of all films, not just the classics, a love story is often a key component to the screwball comedy. Falling in love or finding love at the end of a film was, and still is, a sure fire way of allowing the audience to leave the theater happy. I've heard a lot of arguments, especially in regard to feminism in films, that falling in love with a man or vice versa can cheapen the argument or themes of empowering women because settling down with a man means trading in your independence for complacency. Personally, I think love stories are equally relevant to feminist cinema as non-love stories simply because, you know, people fall in love a lot. It's kind of an important component of living life and creating a film that the majority of your audience can agree with. Valid arguments can be made around the block for each different way of thought, but for the sake of classic feminist cinema we sort of need to be okay with it here, like in Baby Face, because History has already happened and we can't go back and make it different.

The Thin Man, however, is a little different in that the film's protagonists, Nick and Nora Charles (played by William Powell and Myrna Loy), are already husband and wife. So during their mishaps and adventures and sleuthing, they don't fall in love for the first time. However, what I think is so wonderful about the film, and its franchise as a whole (they made 6 total), is that the two are always falling in love all over again. Not that it's lost and regained but that they appreciate, value, and cherish one another and recognize each other as equally important components of their marriage and their success as a crime solving couple. However, on the surface, the films don't paint Nick and Nora as being equals. In fact Nick is often guilty of locking Nora in cars or rooms or trying to find other ways to leave her out of the crime solving in order to keep her safe. But true to screwball comedy form, Nora always finds a way back to the adventure and to solving the mystery or bringing the film to its resolution.

Since sexism seems blatant on a surface level it shouldn't be surprising that on a subtextual level it's truly Nora who pulls all the strings, much as all the female protagonists in screwball comedies often do. Without them, the men would crash and burn and fail and its the absolute truth. You know the scene in the movie 300 in which, before making the ultimate decision to start a war, Leonidas looks to his wife first and only upon her nod does he shout, "THIS IS SPARTA!" and kick the Persian messenger into the big well? It's like that except without all the yelling and bloodshed. On the surface, all these handsome, suave, fancy, strong, manly men are nothing without their better half, she who truly holds all the power. Without a woman who rationalizes reasonably, kingdoms would fall and people would suffer needlessly. Or mysteries would go unsolved.

Myrna Loy, despite starting her career as a typecast vamp style temptress (often playing Asian characters even though she was not being Asian) eventually became the top of the town, being dubbed "Queen of the Movies" in a 1936 poll taken by movie goers. In part it was because of her character in The Thin Man which came out only 2 years prior. Nora Charles is the real brains behind the operation and often the reason the mysteries she and her husband are investigating are solved and her real life counterpart is undoubtedly one of the biggest reasons they franchised the series into 6 Thin Man  pictures.

Myrna Loy and Barbara Stanwyck are probably my two favorite actresses primarily because of the power they have on screen. They own themselves, their sexuality, are whip smart, and have the ability to make men feel smart or stupid, worthy or worthless with only a flash of their eyes. The films they were in, whether they were intended to be this way or not, are structured around them and the power they hold over their male counterpart. Particularly in The Thin Man, Myrna Loy's Nora Charles

Born Yesterday (1950)

My absolute favorite. Partly because of how much I love Judy Holliday and mostly because it's quite an important and well crafted picture. Holliday won the Oscar for best actress with her fun, quirky, ditzy performance as ex-showgirl Emma "Billie" Dawn, the girlfriend of wealthy but uncouth tycoon Harry Brock. Harry's making a run for a top spot in Washington politics and is finding his mistress an unfortunate drag on his plans since to the rest of the upper crust she comes across as an uneducated no nothing bimbo. But we find that couldn't be further from the truth when Harry hires newspaperman Paul Verrall to tutor her and Billie takes to her new-found intelligence like a duck takes to water, eventually doing what we've been waiting for her to do, stand up for herself against the oppression of both Harry and the upper class.

Judy Holliday was fairly typecast, not unlike Marilyn Monroe, as the ditsy blonde and Born Yesterday is partially responsible for that since it was a role she originated on Broadway. In reality, however, she was whip smart and even famously channeled her character of Billie when being questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee about her involvement in, or knowledge of any of her friends' involvement in, the Communist party. She essentially acted her way out of actually testifying, playing the ditsy, dumb Billie instead of Judy Holliday herself. Because she appeared to know so little about anything, she was not pursued or black listed like some of her fellow actors were.

Born Yesterday is like a movie from the future. It's so spot on in its themes and tones that the same exact film could be released this weekend and be equally as effective. But what's most effective about the film is the unabashed oppression by men in places of power against their "dames". When treated like they're not supposed to know anything or that they have a lesser place in society, many women end up believing that of themselves. This is Billie at the start of the film. She knows little of the real world or how politics work because she's been arm candy her whole life. And since she appears so ditsy at social gatherings since she can't carry on an "intelligent" conversation then it creates a problem for the politician types who are looking to make a name for themselves.

But the film goes to show that intelligence is something everyone has, especially in their own individual way. And that oppression can be the greatest cause for ignorance. Billie appears ignorant and unintelligent at first because she's been a victim her entire life. Men have treated her poorly and as a former showgirl it's not hard to imagine the way other people looked at her and perceived her. When people say things about you long enough to start to believe them. Not until Paul begins to tutor her does she understand that she isn't just a "dumb bimbo", but a human being who has value, one capable of believing and doing whatever it is she decides to do.

When Billie finally rises up against Brock it's one of the greatest, stand up and cheer moments in cinema history and is a moment that will stay with me forever.

These are just three of the many, many films out there showcasing powerful, talented women from Hollywood history. There may be more to come from me on it in the future, but if you were looking for a good jumping off point in your exploration of classic feminist cinema, these are an excellent place to start.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

I'm Going to Hell and I'd Be Happy to See You There

I'm going to hell.

You read that right.

When I die, I'm going straight there. Maybe it'll be in a hand basket, maybe it'll be through some other sassy idiomatic means but regardless, that's where I'll be when I bite the dust. And to tell you the truth I'd absolutely love to see you there. I think it'll be wonderful. There'll be a whole group of us sinners down there, most the population of the entire world in fact, just sipping mint juleps I'm sure, playing pinochle or gin rummy, wearing our Sunday best just looking out upon the lakes of fire from our porches in our rocking chairs, fanning ourselves with old newspapers and commenting in our Foghorn Leghorn accents, "I say, I say it is mighty hot down here. Lord almighty!"

Why I've decided to depict all us future sufferers as old Southern Belles and Gents I don't know. It sounded funny. Mostly because it helps me make light of something so preposterous that I find it hard anyone could possibly believe. And that's "HELL!" You've heard of it. Fire and brimstone and eternal damnation and suffering. All your worst fears and nightmares come to life, played out before you like a never ending snuff film. Sounds like a terrible place. But mostly because it sounds so terrible, the older I get, the more I feel confident in knowing it doesn't exist. And if it does, I'm sure that's where I'm going. We all are. Because it's impossible for one Religion's rules or dogma to be exactly right over another's. There are so many Religions in this world it's astounding. And most all of them believe different things. And even if they're rooted in similarities, like Christianity, they make sure to distance themselves enough from other denominations to ensure they are the, "One, true Religion."

Growing up Christian and raised in a Church with its own set of rules I believed a lot of the imagery for a long time. Basically if you do good and believe Jesus is God's son then you get to party it up in this beautiful puffy cloud room called Heaven and drink wine and gorge on the fatted calf with the other people who believed the same thing. And if you do bad then you go to hell where Satan tortures you and you get to burn forever and ever because God hates people who don't believe what he tells them to.

That's most Church dogmas in a nutshell. "Do this or else fire." Thankfully, the older I get the sillier it all sounds. The more time I spend living in an array of diversity the more I realize shades of grey are the color palette of life. But despite this seemingly bleak hue of coexistence, life is rather colorful. It is precisely those different shades of grey that make it that way.

For the uninitiated, I've always been open with the fact that I am a Christian. But not as you might think. I don't believe most of the things other "Christians" do because I think they're man made, not divinely inspired. I believe in "love and treat others the way you would desire to be loved and treated", and that about sums it up. For me, all other traits of what should dictate how to live as a "good" person come from that golden rule, and the acceptance of others for being different is an inherent part of that because I want them to love and treat me with the same respect in return. Though when I simply say, "I'm Christian" I'm immediately placing a label on myself. When I say it I'm acknowledging the immediate subconscious judgment I'll be met with by the person I'm talking to, whether it be positive or negative. Because life itself, all its meanings and all its purposes, is far too abstract to convey in comprehensible terms without labels. Labels are words that help us classify complex notions, ideas, and things. Like the names of colors. What "color" truly is, is a spectrum of light in its many different forms. But we call each color by its own specific name in order to put a label on what we see so we can understand what it is without digging down into the abstract. Conversations would be awfully long if we spoke in literal terms one hundred percent of the time. So rather than say all that we simplify it with red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, and their variations thereafter. The English words for colors.

Now say I use the Japanese words for those same colors. Aka, daidaiiro, kiiro, midori, ao, aiiro, murasaki.

When you think of simple labeling words such as terms that represent the, technically, abstract concept of color you don't consider their representations in any other language but English to be false simply because they are not English. That's called ignorance. We accept that other languages can be translated into all other languages because at the end of the day we all communicate the same way, with labels, or, our own words. Though they are unique to a certain people they are simultaneously the same as every other language, just different. One of life's beautifully sensible contradictions. They are the same but not the same and it makes sense. And that's all language is; different "labels" used to identify the same abstruse concepts. Like color.

Now consider Religion, or more broadly belief and or faith, the same way. I define faith the same way the dictionary does, "confidence or trust in a person or thing." That's it. And in that definition I don't see the words God, Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Shiva, Zeus, Muhammad, etc. They're not there. Faith, simply, is the confidence or trust that what you believe to be the truth of your life is truth. It may not be a Universal truth but it is "truth" nonetheless because it is yours and it is how you define your life. And everyone is, or should be, entitled to their own truth because your life is your own and no one else's.

But seeking to simplify the abstract or make comprehensible the incomprehensible is not something everyone is interested in doing. As I mature I find that not all are like me. We all do. When we were young it was okay to assume everyone was the same because, at that age, grasping the complexity of individualism was too difficult, so assumption provided the simplest answer; that everyone else should be like us because we make sense to ourselves. And that rational was fine when we were children. But we're adults now. And being an adult comes with a lot of responsibilities, one of those primarily being the acceptance of others for being different than ourselves the same way we don't dispute that difference in language exists as it is just a natural part of existence. Just like not everyone has brown hair and brown eyes, not all skin colors are the same, not all sexual preferences are the same, not all beliefs will or should be the same. They will be independent to us and us alone because they are ours, because we must rationalize and make sense of our individualism in how it makes sense to us independently from all others on Earth.

Though, again, as I get older the more I find that not all people are like me. Not everyone is as interested in pursuing their individualism as I am. I'm a left handed, right brained person. I think logically in my day to day tasks but more often than not few things interest me as much as abstraction, spirituality, and art. That's who I am. And whenever I urge others to get in touch with their spirituality, to think of life more abstractly, the more I realize not everyone is interested in doing that. And I have to be okay with that because I'm not a child anymore, I can't expect everyone to want exactly what I want. Some people are more logical than me, more scientific, and certainly more mathematically inclined. Some people just like living in the day to day without considering the big picture because it scares them. Some people like accepting the "Universal truth" or an organization because it relieves the pressure of having to solve those problems on their own. And so we have Religion. And we have to be okay with that. It's inevitable.

However, unlike genetic differences, religion is a man made label developed to put reason to something we all have in common; our desire to understand our meaning in this life. In itself Religion is not something or any one thing. It's meant to classify the broad strokes of belief that many of us share. If everyone said they were an individualist, no one would understand what that meant, what their basic principles are, and how they, broadly, define life and their place in it. Saying you are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, etc. provides a label to the rest of the world and to yourself so we can classify what our basic belief system is and then categorize others away into a compartment inside our brain reserved for someone else and the rest who are "like" them in order to understand them the way we all understand colors; simply. Most often, people need to make things more simple in order to understand them, not more complex. But of course no two people are the same, however this kind of classification is needed in order to prevent our heads from exploding.

Because Religion is man made it also provides a set of rules or laws that have been created by human beings, mostly men, and oddly enough all of them were created thousands of years ago. Modern Religions can spring up from time to time like Scientology, but even then most of them, like Mormonism, draw from a greater labeled Religion like Christianity, which in itself is a broad Religion with many denominations. In a simple way of putting it, Religion is terribly convoluted.

People need rules. Not everyone but most, because complete self actualization is often too difficult and too scary since it usually leads to the knowledge that you are alone in the universe. This isn't implying that you aren't in the company of others, but that because you are truly one of a kind then technically no rules apply to you the way they apply to anyone else and no one will completely understand you or the universe the way you understand yourself and your universe. Because the universe truly is yours. But it's also hers, his, and ours. It exists completely as itself but its true meaning will, and must, be different to each and every one of us. Because all of the answers to all the questions of "why?" will never be found. Some of them may be, some of them have been and we can share them amongst ourselves, but the ultimate "why" always exists, and the answers you find to your "why's" will always be different from anyone else's answers because you and everyone else is unique.

Of course we have "laws" that must be obeyed to ensure things are kept in order and to prevent chaos and anarchy from breaking out, but truth be told, when you first find self realization most people hold themselves in a higher position than the rest of the world because things that seem petty, like laws, rules, and Religion, no longer apply to them and it is extremely liberating. They have seen their "God" or whatever it is they'd like to label the answer to their question "why", and then they sit on a throne of "understanding" because they see that no one else can truly understand them. It's what I like the call the "Enlightenment Fallacy". That once you've achieved self actualization, or enlightenment, you're finished. Not that your life is over, but that you no longer have to seek the greater truths because you have found them, as they apply to you personally at least, and you get to watch the rest of the world scramble around trying to do the same thing and laugh at how silly their struggle seems.

But self actualization should more so be considered as Prometheus' fire, something that is "taken from the Gods" and given to humanity in order to assist in progress and civilization. Enlightenment is viewed by the public too often as a selfish act when what it truly should be is the most selfless thing you could ever hope to accomplish. You have had your consciousness dipped into the white hot heat of understanding the abstract and rather than letting it consume you, you allow it to fuel you and let that fuel propel you into helping others do the same. But, to make a complex situation even more complex, you must also understand that the fire of self actualization that fuels individuals isn't always the same as what fuels you. Your savior may be Jesus Christ and someone else's Muhammad and you have to be okay with that. Now most people won't be because Religion has a great way of indoctrinating people into following the rules they've created in order to control individuals and extract money from them. I don't mean this in an entirely negative way, churches and groups need contributions in order to keep those organizations running. Many of them do good work throughout the community and offer help for those who are seeking the answers to their lives, and those monetary contributions from members justify the means and allow the good works to continue.

Though it's unfortunate that despite most Religions having seemingly good intentions, several of them push the perspective that individualism is more dangerous than sameness. Because imagine having a bunch of think for yourselfers running around, tearing down the fabric of how the world has worked since its beginning. That's bad for business. And believe me, it is a business. Self actualization seems dangerous to most because it is the understanding that you are who you choose to be and you need no one else's acceptance or approval to be that person. You are allowed to reject all other forms of Religion and belief because they are not your own, and the belief that you have found is the most substantial to yourself and, truly, all you need. Though it never entitles you to rejecting others for being different since, in a way, it is exactly the same thing you're asking of others. It should always be, so long as no one gets hurt or discriminated against, we are free to believe what we choose. And I mention the avoidance of discrimination but I believe it is the fundamental building block of ignorance, which only limits your own ability to achieving great self actualization. But of course true enlightenment is free of conditions, meaning when it is achieved there is an automatic understanding that hurt and discrimination have no place in this world.

Because of all these things and the knowledge that many religions and beliefs have existed since the dawn of man, and since you are capable of creating your own faith, it is impossible to say that heaven and hell exist specifically the way you say they are and even more impossible to prove. But you might be thinking, "Aha! Proof isn't necessary because I have faith and truly that is all you need!" Of course that argument, which you hear almost daily, is saying that the faith or beliefs of others different than yours is wrong because how you define an indefinable abstract is "correct", and since others define the same indefinable abstract differently they are wrong. Therefore wrongness is ultimately decided arbitrarily and lines are drawn and people argue and it's a shame. How easy and pleasant it would be to find interest in our differences and explore them and personally grow from what we find rather than shut down individuality in favor of conformity because we are afraid of our personal infinite potential.

Since there are so many different walks of life and so many different versions of hell, it makes me certain I'm bound to end up in at least nineteen or twenty of them. On the flip side I guess it could mean I'd accidentally end up in some version of heaven as well since, at the end of the day, it's all arbitrary.

So hey, if it turns out there really was one specific set of rules we were supposed to follow, then great, good for the few who found them. But chances are, considering how different we all are and how differently we interpret the meaning of life and our place in it, none of us will have found it or ever will. Because Universal truth does not exist, but individual truth universally does. That's why I know I'm going to hell. And it's likely you'll be there too. And so will the rest of the world. And if all of us end up there together because we were all wrong, what's the difference between that existence and this? Between "wrong" and "right"? I guess that means, technically, we're all living in hell at this very moment. Strange. From where I'm sitting, when I look out at it all, it's quite nice actually. There's a lot of good, beautiful people here in hell. Honestly, I couldn't think of a place I'd rather be.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Battling The Man in the Mirror: The Dangers of Body Image

Above are the photos you, presumably, wanted to see. And I showed them to you first in the hopes of grabbing your attention and not losing it. For as long as you’ll let me go on, I hope I’ll have that attention undivided because I’d like to tell you a secret. I don’t look like that. Sure they’re photos of me and fellow model/actress Christie Philips, but neither of us, at this moment or any moment other than right now at the top of this page, look exactly like that. Why’s that? Because those images are photo shopped. Oh, they’re also pictures of us after having gone through make up, been spray tanned, covered in oil, and put in front of a very talented photographer who could make a rock look dynamic, original, and interesting. It’s called manipulating an image of something that is technically unreal and presenting it to your audience as something that is real. Whether that something is good or bad is sometimes hard to discern but, as for today, I like to think it’s good. Because more than I want to talk about fitness, diet, nutrition, chiseled abs, or glistening muscles, I want to talk about something much more important that affects all of us if not at least in some small way. Body image.

They’re all terms I’m sure you’ve heard; obesity, anorexia, bulimia, body dysmorphic disorder, muscle dysmorphia, the list goes on. They’re not good words by any means and all of them carry the weight of society telling us that we, as human beings, are fundamentally flawed. What we are and who we are, on the outside, the way we look, is simply not good enough. Magazines, movies, television, and the rest of society tell us how skinny we should be, how muscular we should be, how you’re not pretty enough and simply not good enough. What much of the world around us is communicating is, at this moment, who you are right now is fat, out of shape, and disgusting. And it’s awful. This is a trend that has been around for many, many years and, sadly, as we continue to promote nearly unobtainable goals as the "easily achievable" standard it seems to be getting worse.

You can’t judge yourself against actors and models because the people in them tend to always be thin, attractive, and well built men and women that make their living out of being, basically, a walking, talking body image. A lot of these brands represent a very small minority of people who are able to make their sole focus looking good. They are paid to live a lifestyle that isn’t practical for just any man or woman, but practical only to those who have copious amounts of free time and a paycheck that supports their continued pursuit of the perfect body.

Chances are that isn’t you.

But a lot of us feel the pressure, day in and day out, to be something we’re not. Whether that applies to our work, our family lives, our friends, or our bodies, there always seems to be a constant force working from the outside trying to get in, to remind you that you’re not perfect and that that’s not okay. You should be perfect. Because that’s what magazine covers and movies suggest.

Well I call bullshit. The purpose of living a fulfilling and rewarding life is to recognize how imperfect you are, and revel in it to a certain degree. To acknowledge your imperfections is to embrace your personal perfection. Who you are to the rest of the world is always going to be imperfect, but who you are to yourself should be perfect because you’re you and there has never been and never will be another you.

But more and more we’re dealing with a rise in eating disorders and body image issues in both women and men. Despite the empowerment that new technology like the internet and social media can provide, there’s always going to be people who look to tear you down and as a result the wheels of progress in ridding the world of societal standards are spinning in place. And it begins with faulty standards. There are two sides to every coin. Just as eating disorders are still on the rise so are obesity rates, and much of how these relate to our body image issues comes from the faulty standard by which we “measure” ourselves. In my opinion it is fundamentally flawed and seemingly designed to set one up for failure. It’s called the BMI or Body Mass Index. Most studies are done utilizing the BMI calculator, which takes your height and weight in order to find where you fall on the chart and is broken down into four components. Underweight, (a BMI of 18.5 and below), Normal weight (18.5 – 24.9), overweight (25 – 29.9), and obese (30 or greater.)

            My BMI is 26.2. Which means, “techinically”, I am over weight. But the word “mass” in the term “body mass index” is more about the total mass you carry around in relation to your height. Granted my BMI is not severely overweight, but because I have a greater amount of muscle mass than the average person, I am considered, by the BMI’s standards, overweight. I am over the arbitrary median.

            When you understand the broad definition and how the BMI works, it becomes more a general tool for the average person who does not have the time or money to put a severe focus on diet and exercise like a professional model or actor would. But because of how general it can be, we've become accustomed to using it as an example of, basically, either how “fat” or how “skinny” we are. A lot of these numbers and terms are wreaking havoc on our body images. What we see when we look in the mirror, how we think other people perceive themselves, etc. And this is equally as toxic as the other side of the coin.

Did you know…

  • 80% of women say the images of others in movies, television, and magazines make them feel insecure
  • 42% of girls through the third grade desire to be thinner
  • 81% of ten year old's are afraid of being fat
  • Because of the average woman’s build versus those chosen as “models”, women’s body image has gone haywire. The average woman is 5’4 and weights 140 lbs. But the average model is 5’11 and weights 117 lbs, making models thinner than 98% of the rest of American women.
  • More than half of teenage girls think they should be on diets
  • 91% of women feel they are unhappy with their bodies
  • 58% of college girls are peer pressured into losing weight and/or dieting
  • Surveys show 30% of women and 20% of men would agree to cosmetic surgery at some point in the future.
  • 4% of girls have induced vomiting to lose weight and 15% have resorted to fasting (or not eating) in order to do so
  • 95% of people with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25.
  • And only 10% of people suffering from an eating disorder will seek professional help.

These numbers should cause outrage. They’re not getting smaller and they’re not going away. And, in addition, they are now on the rise in boys.

  • 3% of boys induce vomiting and 8% are fasting
  • 10 to 15% of people suffering from bulimia or anorexia are male
  • Eating disorders in college men ranges from 4-10%
  • A recent study on a large university campus found that the female-to-male ratio of positive screens for eating disorder symptoms was 3-to-1
  • Over the last few decades, the body image concerns of men have increased from 15% to 43% . These rates are comparable to those found in women.
  • Between 28% and 68% of normal-weight males think they are underweight and desire to increase their muscle mass through diet and exercise
  • Because of gender role conflict and masculine ideals considering seeking help to be a negative, men with eating disorders are less likely to get professional help than women.
  • More and more men and women are now being affected by Muscle dysmorphia, a subtype of body dysmorphic disorder, in which people obsess about being inadequately muscular. This behavior will include spending hours in the gym, squandering excessive amounts of money on ineffectual sports supplements, abnormal eating patterns or even substance abuse.

Again, rather than getting better with time and technology, these issues are still growing and getting worse. And just as I mentioned prior to the above statistics, the flip side of this unfortunate coin is also the rise of obesity in both our Country and the rest of the world.

  • In America, only an average of 31% are considered to be of normal weight, or are even considered “underweight”. 33% are thought to be overweight, a stunning 35% are obese, and 6% of this group is considered extremely obese. This means roughly two thirds of Americans are overweight and one third of them are obese. 3 of 4 men are considered overweight or obese, and both men and women share a similar number for those considered obese, about 36%. (Keep in mind, this specific statistic is likely pulled from a collection of BMIs, so the percentages, in reality, are floating. However, even with a margin of error of only a few percent, these numbers are still staggeringly high.)
  • Since 1960, the amount of those considered obese has doubled, from 13.4% to 35.7%. That’s only in the span of nearly 55 years.
  • Studies show that in children ages 6-11, only half of boys are getting the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity each day, and only 35% of girls of that age are getting the same.
  • For all children, ages 6-11, an average of 42% are getting the required hour of daily physical activity, but for adolescents, ages 12-15, only 8% are getting the same amount of exercise. And all studies reflect that physical activity declines with age.

It’s no doubt that obesity is on the rise in both adults and children. We’re living in a processed, high fat, high carb, high sugar world, where every snacking option available to you is either bad for your health, or tastes bland. Fruits and veggies rarely quench anyone’s sweet tooth or grumbling tummy because they aren’t loaded with artificial ingredients designed to make them taste out of this world. The statistics for junk food put the Obesity epidemic into perspective.

  • Roughly one in four Americans eats fast food every day.
  • Americans spend over 110 billion dollars on fast food every year. This money is enough to end world hunger several times over.
  • McDonald’s alone feeds over 45 million people every day, which is almost more than the entire population of Spain.
  • If you were to eat a big mac, large fires, and a large soda, you’d need to walk, non-stop, for six hours in order to burn off all of its calories.
  • On average, a single meal at a fast food restaurant contains all the calories you will need for an entire day.
  • French Fries are considered the most widely consumed vegetable in America. (Which is saying something considering it ISN’T a vegetable. Technically, botanically, potatoes are vegetables but nutritionally speaking they’re not. They are starches.)
  • Regularly eating fast food more than doubles your chances of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Junk food is responsible for roughly 35% of the world’s heart attacks.
  • For people who have a Starbucks a day habit, they could save nearly $1,000 a year if they made coffee at home.
  • It’s actually a myth that healthy food costs more than junk food, mostly because these studies are done based on a cost-per-calorie measurement. Healthier foods contain less calories than junk or fast food, which technically means less energy. But considering we’re over eating to begin with and need to be consuming less calories and smaller portion sizes, healthier food is comparable. (But this shouldn't even be an issue to begin with. Junk food created by science costs less than the things your body really craves, things found in nature, not found in your kids’ science fair project.)

We’re dealing with foods whose ingredients lists are in the dozens and dozens, many of which, even those considered “healthy” options like a Nutrigrain Fruit and Yogurt bars, chicken sandwiches, and “Energy” drinks, have more than 25 ingredients, many of which are all artificial. The honors, unsurprisingly, go to KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) for having the longest ingredient list on earth contained in their chicken pot pie. It boasts a whopping 100 different ingredients which, to give you an idea of the science fair junk you’re putting into your body, is listed here:

Chicken stock, potatoes (with sodium acid pyrophosphate to protect color), carrots, peas, heavy cream, modified food starch, contains 2 percent or less of wheat flour, salt, chicken fat, dried dairy blend (whey, calcium caseinate), butter (cream, salt), natural chicken flavor with other natural flavors (salt, natural flavoring, maltodextrin, whey powder, nonfat dry milk, chicken fat, ascorbic acid, sesame oil, chicken broth powder), monosodium glutamate, liquid margarine (vegetable oil blend [liquid soybean, hydrogenated cottonseed, hydrogenated soybean], water, vegetable mono and diglycerides, beta carotene), roasted garlic juice flavor (garlic juice, salt, natural flavors), gelatin, chicken pot pie flavor (hydrolyzed corn, soy and wheat gluten protein, salt, vegetable stock [carrot, onion, celery], maltodextrin, flavors, dextrose, chicken broth), sugar, mono and diglycerides, spice, seasoning (soybean oil, oleoresin turmeric, spice extractives), parsley, citric acid, caramel color, yellow 5, enriched flour bleached (wheat flour, niacin, ferrous sulfate, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), hydrogenated palm kernel oil, water, nonfat milk, maltodextrin, salt, dextrose, sugar, whey, natural flavor, butter, citric acid, dough conditioner, l-cysteine hydrochloride, potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate (preservatives), colored with yellow 5 & red 40. Fresh chicken marinated with: salt, sodium phosphate and monosodium glutamate. Breaded with: Wheat flour, salt, spices, monosodium glutamate, leavening (sodium bicarbonate), garlic powder, natural flavorings, citric acid, maltodextrin, sugar, corn syrup solids, with not more than 2 percent calcium silicate added as an anti caking agent OR Fresh chicken marinated with: Salt, sodium phosphate and monosodium glutamate. Breaded with: Wheat flour, salt, spices, monosodium glutamate, corn starch, leavening (sodium bicarbonate), garlic powder, modified corn starch, spice extractives, citric acid, and 2 percent calcium silicate added as anticaking agent OR Fresh chicken marinated with: Salt, sodium phosphate and monosodium glutamate. Breaded with: Wheat flour, sodium chloride and anticaking agent (tricalcium phosphate), nonfat milk, egg whites, Colonel's Secret Original Recipe Seasoning OR potato starch, sodium phosphate, salt, Breaded with: Wheat flour, sodium chloride and anti-caking agent (tricalcium phosphate), nonfat milk, egg whites, Colonel's Secret Original Recipe Seasoning OR potato starch, sodium phosphate, salt Breaded with: Wheat flour, salt, spices, monosodium glutamate, leavening (sodium bicarbonate), garlic powder, natural flavorings, citric acid, maltodextrin, sugar, corn syrup solids, with not more than 2 percent calcium silicate added as an anticaking agent OR potato starch, sodium phosphate, salt Breaded with: Wheat flour, salt, spices, monosodium glutamate, corn starch, leavening (sodium bicarbonate), garlic powder, modified corn starch, spice extractives, citric acid, and 2 percent calcium silicate added as anticaking agent OR seasoning (salt, monosodium glutamate, garlic powder, spice extractives, onion powder), soy protein concentrate, rice starch and sodium phosphates. Battered with: Water, wheat flour, leavening (sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium bicarbonate, monocalcium phosphate), salt, dextrose, monosodium glutamate, spice and onion powder. Predusted with: Wheat flour, wheat gluten, salt, dried egg whites, leavening (sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium bicarbonate), monosodium glutamate, spice and onion powder. Breaded with: Wheat flour, salt, soy flour, leavening (sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium bicarbonate), monosodium glutamate, spice, nonfat dry milk, onion powder, dextrose, extractives of turmeric and extractives of annatto. Breading set in vegetable oil.

All that is one chicken pot pie. Just one. And  what’s most troubling is that people have no clue, many of them having no care even to learn what they’re putting inside their bodies. It’s simpler to rationalize it down to thinking, “Chicken, vegetables, and crust.” All the while we’re drinking “diet” soda and sprinkling “magic powder” (I’m looking at you Sensa) on our chili dogs and expecting it to help us lose weight.  And a lot of the time, just as we’re led to believe we are imperfect and fat or ugly, we’re simultaneously led to believe that the junk making us overweight in the first place is not so bad for us because the box tells us they’re good for us. A box of Poptarts has a fun little circular label that reads: “Good source of 7 vitamins and minerals.” More like a good source of cake for breakfast. Bill Cosby would be proud.

Most important is that both of these epidemics, eating disorders and body image issues as well as overeating are simply not getting better. They’re getting worse. And it’s all because we’re being fed mixed messages at all times. We’re always reminded of how out of shape we are yet we should be rewarding ourselves on a hot day with a refreshing Coca-Cola. It’s madness. And the true work that goes behind professional models and actors who are in that Super Hero or Spartan shape is unbelievable. As a public we also feel, because society encourages us to, that eating generally well and working out for 45 minutes to an hour per day at moderate intensity is enough to get us looking like Hugh Jackman or Jennifer Aniston. Even beyond the knowledge that how these images are altered is the unwritten truth of everything else that goes in to creating the body society thinks you should have. It’s not a walk in the park folks, it’s a lot of dieting, blood, sweat, and tears, and supplementing to generate a result that’s then repackaged and marketed as something like, “SIX PACK ABS IN 30 DAYS GUARANTEED!” Which is an absolute fallacy.

My goal in all of this is that I want us to put our focus on being healthy and fit, not on being skinny and shredded. Strong is the new skinny, so when I say fit I mean putting your heart to work every day in order to take care of it and prevent disease, to get you to a body fat percentage that means you are taking care of yourself, that’s you’re not obese but also not stick thin. We like to say, “define normal”, but to a large degree there actually is a norm for our bodies, and that norm is healthy and functional, not abused or deprived.

So finally, let’s get back to the photos at the top of the page. I’d like to get to the nitty gritty of what it truly takes for the average person (a 26 year old male in my case) to get into the shape society wants you to believe you can have if you just eat more salad and step on the treadmill for a half hour a day.  I decided to take on this project as a means of showing people how, literally, impossible it is for any human being on the planet Earth to look the way society pretends some do and we should. That shredded photo of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine? Lighting, makeup, and photo shop. That flawless ad for makeup starring Halle Berry or Jennifer Lopez? Lighting, makeup, and post production. The most important thing to remember is that what people are pitching to you isn’t even how these individuals look in their regular day to day. Just like me. I became involved in fitness as a hobby and now as a passion just over three years ago. I’m 26 today. When it started it was for the inevitable reasons. I wanted six pack abs and to look like a stud. Big arms, broad back, wide chest, big calves, you name it. I wanted it for the reason most people do, and we shouldn’t deny it, to turn heads. It’s, as are so many things in our lives, a body image issue. Who you are here and now is not who you want to be. Who you want to be is Hugh Jackman or Halle Berry or Jennifer Lopez. But we’re not taking into account that even those people aren’t truly “those” people without the aid of some movie magic, a strict diet, and a hell of a lot of exercise.

I want to expose a lot of the myths behind what goes into a magazine photo shoot. When you flip through most magazines or TV channels what you’re seeing is the end result of a lot of time and money. Do these celebrities work very hard in order to be in the shape that they are? You bet they do. And I think it’s commendable. Though it should be known that the finished product goes beyond their hard work, meaning the final image presented to the viewer is one that is unreal. And I think celebrities, and many of them are open about it, have a responsibility to make known that in the off season, when not filming for getting ripped for a certain part or shoot, they eat and behave just like we do.

 So to be as much of a walking, talking example as I could I wanted to put myself through what was about half of a bodybuilders contest prep. I was already in good shape beforehand but, in order to get as lean as possible within 8 weeks, I drastically altered my diet and consumed things I wouldn't normally, as well as upping my daily exercise. This is the truth about me, about those photos, and about most of the things that flood your mind day in and day out that feed the body image issues all of us are already dealing with. And it’s a hard one.

For 8 weeks I cut out all forms of carbohydrates. Aside from my weekly cheat meal I eliminated alcohol, sweets, and all types of “junk food”. I was eating, primarily, lean proteins (chicken, turkey, pork, fish, red meat), steamed vegetables, one piece of fruit per day, and one protein shake post workout. I ate 5 to 6 times a day and meals usually went as follows:

  • Breakfast: Chicken breast and serving of mixed nuts
  • Mid Morning Meal: Steamed veggies and low carb greek yogurt
  • Lunch: Post workout shake – whey protein, one banana, 2 tbsp peanut butter, almond milk, and ice
  • Mid Afternoon Meal:  All veggie salad and dressing
  • Dinner: Lean protein and serving of veggies
  • Late night: 2 tbsp peanut butter
  • Drinking 1 gallon of water a day and 2 gallons a day in the week leading up to the shoot

And that was that. To a larger degree it was the paleo diet save for the fact that I was eating peanuts. (Which are technically legumes and not nuts.)

Keep in mind this drastic cutting type diet had been done after I’d worked through a bulking phase in which you consume more calories than your body requires in order to drastically build muscle size. During a “bulking” season (primarily November through February), I was consuming between 3,500 – 5,000 calories a day. A lot of that came from Mass Gainer shakes, 4 scoops of which provide well over 600 calories, massive amounts of peanut butter, bananas, meats, etc. and I often ended every night with desert, usually ice cream.

Now, here’s the real secret. On top of this, I was taking supplements. And I’m not talking just a multivitamin and some emergen-c. I mean I was taking SUPPLEMENTS and lots of them. And no, they were not steroids, but stacking all of the supplements I was had an incredibly negative effect on my body probably not unlike banned substances. Was I overjoyed to take them all? No. But I wanted to replicate what someone would likely take (a male in my case) in order to get into the magazine or the contest shape society leads us to believe we can all achieve with a better diet and a little exercise. I wanted to go to the extreme so when it came time to writing about it I could do so from personal experience.

My supplements were as follows, daily:

  • Men’s Multivitamin
  • B-Vitamin Complex
  • Fish Oil
  • Pre-Workout supplement containing creatine (and many other ingredients such as (Arginine Alpha-Ketoglutarate, Creatine Monohydrate, Beta Alanine (CarnoSyn®), Caffeine, 1,3-Dimethylamylamine HCL, Schisandra Chinensis (Berry) Extract (Standardized For Schizandrol A))
  • An Intra-Workout supplement consisting primarily of BCAA’s (Branch Chain Amino Acids) made up mostly of Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Calcium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Chloride, Sodium, Potassium, L-Leucine L-Isoleucine, L-Valine, Coconut (Cocos Nucifera) Water Powder, Calcium, Magnesium, Chloride, Citric Acid, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Calcium Silicate, Sucralose, Red Beet Juice Powder (for color), Acesulfame Potassium.
  • Additional Creatine Monohydrate in my post workout shake
  • Whey Protein Power
  • Fat Burners (Muscle Pharm’s Shred Matrix, something similar to what Hydroxycut is.) Niacin, Biotin, Pantothenic Acid, Magnesium, Zinc , Chromium,
  • Guarana Seed Extract (Paullinia Cupana) (22% Caffeine), Caffeine Anhydrous (150 Mg), Green Tea Extract (40% EGCG) (Camellia Sinensis)(Leaf), Suma Extract (20:1)(Pfaffia Paniculata)(Root), Saw Palmetto (Serenoa Repens)(Berry), Yerba Mate (Ilex Paraguariensis)(Leaf), Fo-Ti (Polygonum Multiflorum)(Root), Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus Senticosus)(Root), Cayenne 40,000 HU/g (Capsicum Annum)(Pepper), Yohimbine HCL, Glucomannan (Amorphophallus Konjac)(Root), Guar Gum, Alpha Lipoic Acid, Gymnema Sylvestre (Leaf), Banaba Extract (1% Corosolic Acid)(Lagerstroemia Speciosa)(Leaf), D-Biotin, Calcium Malate, White Kidney Bean (Phaseolous Vulgaris)(Bean), Chromium (Chelate), Turmeric (Standardized For Curcuminoids)(Curcuma Longa)(Root/rhizome), Panax Ginseng Root, 5-HTP (Griffonia Simplicifolia)(Seed), Echinacea Angustifolia (Root), Garlic, Wood Betony (Betonica Officinalis)(Herb), Astragalus (Astragalus Membranaceus)(Root), Pyroglutamic Acid, Papain, Uva Ursi (Arctostaphylos Uva-Ursi)(Leaf)(Contains Arbutin, Methyl-Arbutin), Dandelion (Taraxacum Officinale)(Root) Extract 20:1 (Contains Taraxol &Taraxerol), Potassium Aspartate, DigeSEB® (Amylases, Protease Blend [I, II And III], Lipase, Lactase, HemiSEB® Cellulase, Maltase, Invertase, Bromelain, Peptizyme SP®, Papain And Alpha-Galactosidase), Ginger (Zingiber Officinale)(Root), Fennel (Foeniculum Vulgare)(Seed), Almond Oil Powder, Dulse (Palmaria Palmata)(Algae), Alfalfa (Medicago Sativa)(Leaf), Chlorella, Artichoke (Cynara Cardunculus)(Leaf), Irish Moss Red Algae (Chondrus Crispus)(Algae), Wild Mexican Yam (Dioscorea Villosa)(Root), Apple Pectin, Kelp, Bromelain, Rutin NF

  • Diuretics (in the final days leading up to the photo shoot) which facilitate in flushing your body of excess water and can be dangerous as they can often lead to dehydration.

So, not only was all this terribly expensive but it also wreaked havoc on my body, eliminated my sex drive, and made me sluggish and tired around about 3:00 PM each day. I was consuming tremendous amounts of caffeine, creatine, and stimulants found in both the pre-workout supplements and also in the fat burners. The thermogenic supplements of the fat burner gave me an irregular heart rate that made me worry. My body was, for 8 weeks, essentially redlining.

On top of all this my workouts were lasting between two and three hours daily, five times a week. Many times I would be working out twice a day in order to get in the requisite stuff. So needless to say, come dinner time and sundown each day, I was done. But hey, look at those photos of me. I sure look good don’t I? All shredded, and buff, and handsome?

            But that’s not who I am. If I were shirtless near you today, I’d just look like I was in “okay” shape. Because it’s important to remember that those key words, “shredded”, “buff”, “handsome”, “ripped”, etc. that magazines scream out at you from the shelves every time you’re in the grocery store are like the colors of McDonald’s advertising. They’re designed and tested and proven to get the desired result, selling their product. And we keep buying it. They keep telling us how imperfect we are and we keep trusting them and it’s killing us on both sides of the spectrum. We’re either not eating enough or we’re eating too much.

The biggest part of the secret here is the photos below are ones we took, as part of my experiment, about 5 minutes before the photos at the top. The difference? No makeup. No interesting camera angles, no special lighting, and no flexing, just me hanging out being me. So knowing all that, the following photos are entirely natural and the true result of 8 weeks of incredibly hard work and supplement usage.


And my counterpart, Christie, thankfully was not on the same regimen as I was. We're very different, obviously, and it should be a perfect example that diet and exercise is often different strokes for different folks. Find what you like, what works for you, and stick to it. She has an extensive background in martial arts with a third degree black belt in Karate and a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. She says she prefers staying in shape by having fun, not by doing typical workouts. She water skis almost every weekend, hikes, dances, zumbas, does yoga, plays racquetball, and is a former American Gladiator when it made its TV comeback a few years ago. (Exactly.) 
                Her diet is a miracle. She never eats the same thing two days in a row and believes in calorie confusion, so her daily intake ranges between 2,500 and 5,000 calories which is, depending on what her activities are, how much she burns in a day. She says she's in the minority of people who's always had a high metabolism and pretty much each whatever she wants. Her body responds more to carbs and fruits than it does to protein and vegetables. She's a great example of someone's body being entirely different than mine or yours, which should encourage us to learn more about our bodies and what works for us. But mostly I'm going to chalk it up to her epic fitness background and the fact that she's the only woman in her Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class which she says if she does more than three times a week she ends up looking like the incredible Hulk. Needless to say she's a hard worker who's been a fitness role model her entire life, especially considering she's never let her weight fluctuate more than 5 pounds and has weighed the same, except when pregnant, for 25 years. She's a dedicated, take no prisoners, shining example of what hard work really looks and sounds like.


And what do you have? A normal looking guy and gal. Granted I’m a little bigger than most and Christie is quite obviously in great shape, but this comes from our exercise regimens and diets. But do we look the way someone on the cover of a magazine does? If you passed by us in a public park would you think, “Good Lord it’s the Wolverine and Red Sonja!” I don't think so. What you see with Christie is what years of unending hard work looks like and for me, I'm happy to be the example of what hard work looks like but also someone who has been utilizing extensive supplements. For someone like me, if I want to look the way I thought I was supposed to, I have to be taking all the junk I was.

But this is how all of that looks without movie magic. If all magazines, movies and TV had their actors and actresses looking like this would you feel so ashamed of yourself? Because many times that’s how it seems they're making you feel; that you should be ashamed for looking the way you do and not looking impossibly perfect. And to give greater context, here are the final images, as seen above, shown side by side with the originals. Keep in mind make up is part of them at this point in the shoot, so highlighting the muscles is apparent, but one has had photoshop work while the other has not.

Well no one looks perfect. Not any celebrity on earth, not you, and certainly not me. And the proof is right here in this post. Most men and women believe it’s possible to train and diet enough so that they can look skinny, toned, and/or shredded at a moments notice. That you could throw your shirt off and walk around looking like these two.

That's Greg Plitt and Jamie Eason, two spokespeople and fitness gurus who I know for a fact work incredibly hard and take amazing care of themselves. I begrudge neither of them a single ounce of who they are and what they do and I look to both of them for guidance in my pursuit of fitness. But I'm encouraged to remind you that they are not you and they are not me and unless you dream of being a fitness model, they are not who you should be measuring yourself against. These are not "average" people who spent an hour in the gym each day and ate generally well. They are precise, trained, professional athletes and models who do this for a living. They are the extreme minority.

So I'm here to tell you to stop judging yourself against impossible standards. I’m here to tell you that, whatever it is that you want out of fitness or your nutrition, to do it for the right reasons, that no matter how hard you try you’ll never look the way society tells you, you can and should. It is impossible. You cannot do it. No one can. Even after the rigorous exercise routines and the strict diets it still requires technology to make you look that way. And even for bodybuilders, models, and actors, maintaining such a dangerous diet or supplement and exercise regimen in the long term can be incredibly dangerous to your health.

Eating disorders are a very serious problem. Obesity is a very serious problem. It seems that in a day and age in which technology and communication should be pushing to make these problems better it isn't doing a thing. They’re only getting worse. And all of it ties back to that one thing that all of us deal with; body image. And I’d be a liar to say I don’t suffer from degrees of muscle dysmorphia. I want to open up with you all as much as I can to show you that, to different degrees, we’re all dealing with our own body image, for better or for worse. I can tell you that when I wake up in the morning and do my stereotypical flex in the bathroom mirror (because face it, we all do it) I’m not happy with what I see. There’s always some small problem. A group of muscles is not as defined as it “should” be, as big as it “should” be, the abs are not as defined as they “should” be, you’re not as toned or shredded as you “should” be. And truth be told, it’s all bullshit, because who you “should” be is not who society tells you. Who you should be is who you are.

            If you or someone you know is having trouble with any of the issues we’ve discussed above then be there for them, support them, and aid them in seeking help. No one on this planet can do the extensive damage to you that we are capable of doing to ourselves. And that’s all based out of how we see ourselves, our body image, and much of that is now a byproduct of how society tells us we should look, think, and feel. In order to make money they need not only your allegiance to their brand but they also need you to feel you are not good enough and only they can help you feel better. And all of it is untrue. You are good enough. But it takes support from friends and family to get you to believe it.

            I want you to fight back against societal constraints. I want you not to take”no” for an answer. I want you to believe you ARE good enough. I want you to take care of your mind and body. But most of all I want you to believe in yourself. This can be a dangerous world to live in but only if we let it. That’s because we convince ourselves it’s us against them, that we’re alone, that the empathy and sympathy of others isn't good enough. But please, don’t shut us out. We’re here to help because, on some level, we all deal with the same issues to greater or lesser degrees.

           If you just need a person to talk to about this, help or friendly advice on your diets or workouts, or someone to open up to (anonymously even) to find a way to stop the pressures of society, to make a change and start believing in yourself, in who you are and what you’re capable of, please contact me. You can do it right here through this blog. But you’ve got to be willing to reject the image you currently carry of yourself because even though, at this moment, you and I don’t know each other I can tell you with 100% certainty that you are designed to be an incredible person. You might not feel that way right now but I promise you, I promise you, you will. You’ve just got to reach out and ask for help. Don’t let yourself just be another unfortunate statistic. Be who you were meant to be.

                                                                                               With All the Love I Can Give,
                                                                                                                       Will Sterling

Photography and post production by Jessica Verma.
Makeup by Olivia Horbath.
Models: Christie Philips and William Sterling.