Mechanism -- The Ugly Truth That Nobody Wants To Know (Chapter 4)
©2005 Darel Rex Finley
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Art, Beauty, Fitness
“Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clear to the bone.”
MORE THAN ANY OTHER ARTIST, Pablo Picasso has come to symbolize the advent
of modern art. Originally Picasso, like most painters, created lifelike portraits of
people, such as “Old Guitarist” or “Portrait of Sebastià Junyent.” But when photography was invented, Picasso reacted by changing his style to “cubism” — bizarre, abstract, angular areas of solid color arranged to form a cartoonish representation of a scene, such as “Three Musicians,” and strangely deformed cartoon
people most typified by “Guernica,” his depiction of the Spanish Civil War. For
creating these crude, cartoonish works, Picasso was rewarded with elevation to
the status of most revered artist of his time, seemingly incapable of producing
anything that wasn’t widely considered great. The art world has followed Picas-
so’s lead ever since, and most modern art consists of the bizarre, the abstract, the
crude, the cartoonish, and the ugly. Nor does this look to be a passing fad;
among the upper echelons of the art crowd, at least, it appears here to stay.
What happened? The most obvious analysis is that the camera gave everyone
the ability to effortlessly create perfect portraits and landscapes of anyone or
anything, and rendered that style of painting superfluous — thus, the fine artist
had to turn to the creation of abstractions that the camera cannot capture. This
explanation, however, is inaccurate, or at least incomplete. Notice that there are
many artists who create pictures of things that the camera cannot capture, such
as dragons, monsters, and fictional dramatic landscapes, but whose works would
never even come under consideration as fine art by the art crowd. Why not? Is it
simply because those artists make money off of their paintings? No — artists
who create ugly, abstract art also sell their works for money.
To answer this question, we must return to the camera and ask what it really
did, and not just to the art, but to the art crowd. True, the camera enables the ordinary individual to trivially create realistic portraits of persons and places. But
the camera did something else, something less obvious: It brought fine art to the
masses. Prior to the camera, great works of art like the Mona Lisa could be
viewed only by a limited few; a privileged art crowd. For centuries, the members of this crowd (mostly non-artists) convinced themselves that they were an
intellectual elite; possessing the rare mental capacity required to appreciate the
beauty of fine art; an ability that placed them above the commoner. The typical
member of humanity, they thought, wouldn’t know the difference between fine
art and worthless junk.
When the camera was invented, along with photographic printing, it became
possible to take photographs of fine art — like the Mona Lisa — and distribute
them in book form to the masses. The commoner, it turned out, could discern
and appreciate fine art, and there was nothing special about the members of the
art crowd after all, except for their money or their social position as patrons of
the arts. Needless to say, that didn’t sit well with the art crowd and — inspired
by the Emperor’s new art: the new works of Picasso — they saw their way out.
By embracing the ugly, the crude, the simplistic, and the bizarre, and claiming to
perceive deep meaning in it, the art crowd has rescued their elite position. It
doesn’t matter that the camera can distribute pictures of this new art to the
masses, because the masses don’t want this new art; they see nothing of value in
it. The elite members of the art crowd can simply claim to see special value in bizarre shapes, and presto — their elite status as appreciators and interpreters of
fine art is preserved.
Since photography and printing (and now the internet) are not going away,
neither is ugly modern art. But those who like beautiful, traditional art need not
despair — the artists who like to produce it never went away, and today their
numbers and their peak talents are greater than ever. Today, their skills are employed not by a high-society art crowd, but instead by the commercial world.
From Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell, to H.R. Geiger and Hans-Werner Sahm, to
George Lucas and Quentin Tarantino, beauty in art is alive and well — but don’t
look for it in a somber museum populated by snobs and suited guards. Look in
the art-book section of B. Dalton’s or Waldenbooks at your local shopping mall.
Look in the movie theaters. Snubbed by the art crowd, the creators of beautiful
art have turned to the general population, and in today’s modern market economy, the latter has turned out to be the far more generous patron.
Two amusing footnotes in the ongoing charade of modern art: Today most
modern artists make sculpture rather than paintings, due to the more limited
ability of the camera and printing press to reproduce three-dimensional works.
And, the latest trend in modern art is a rarely elaborated quality called
“genuineness.” It is a thinly veiled desire to avoid the artist who bites the hand
that feeds him — a phenomenon ironically pioneered by none other than Picasso.
The Art Crowd resents such sentiments and, after being stung several times by
artists who admitted that their work was meaningless crap or was created by a
young child, the Crowd now focuses its most intense praise on the artist whose
carefully researched personal origin and history indicate that he is unable to discern the low quality of his own work, and hence is “genuine.”
— • —
Probably the most prominent example of the art-crowd mentality today is the
Oscars; the Academy Awards given out in lavish ceremony each year by the
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to steadily declining TV
ratings.24 Watch the movies that win these awards, and the successful films that
don’t (or aren’t even nominated), and a pretty obvious pattern starts to emerge.
AMPAS, it seems, has three basic priorities:
1. Motion pictures should depict American culture in a negative light, never
a positive one.
2. A motion picture should be a deep, aching story about the frustration of
human relationships and the tragedy of profound human suffering. Movies should not be fun (e.g. action-adventures, horror movies, comedies).
3. Movies should be set in the historical past, or at least the present, but definitely not in the future or in a fantasy world.
See Table 4-1 for a comparison of recent AMPAS “best pictures” with the biggest
box-office draws from the same year. (Note that for some years the AMPAS
choice is, in my opinion, the better film — though not necessarily the best — the
point of the table is simply to illustrate the above three criteria in action.)
Like the Art Crowd in general, the AMPAS wants to enjoy an elite art-interpretation position over the masses, and this explains each of their three priorities
in judging movies. Most AMPAS members are American, and American culture
is generated by the masses. Therefore, the elite position, by definition, must be to
disdain your culture; to “know better” than the bulk of the population about
how people should live and breathe. Therefore, recommending that Americans
go see movies that portray American culture negatively is teaching them, not entertaining them.
Most people go to the movies for fun. Recommending a fun movie is a way
of helping your fellow citizens to entertain themselves. Recommending a tragic
movie about frustration and misery is to position yourself as a molder, a mentor,
a teacher. This is an elite position.
And finally, movies set in the past are educational by their context alone, and
can also be lessons in the actual mistakes of the past. Again, this is a teaching
role. Movies set in the future are largely speculative, and teach little or nothing
— likewise with movies set in a fantasy environment.
The AMPAS is a nearly perfect manifestation of the desire to position oneself
as an elite tutor to the rest of the population. Like any con-game, there is no real
goal to such posturing. The masses are never going to learn what this elite has to
teach them (thus dissolving the elite). The purpose of positioning oneself as elite
teacher to the rest of the population is simply to enjoy that position in perpetuity.
— • —
Life is like a poker game. If you don’t win, you lose.
“Garfield” — Jim Davis
Though members of the elite art crowd would never agree with this or any definition of art that denies them their elite status as privileged interpreters of art, I
think the most objective definition of art is simply that which significant numbers of people will go out of their way to experience even though it isn’t necessary. So a painting hanging on your wall is art, but the electrical wiring inside
your wall is not. Sure, a professional electrician might look at the wiring diagram of your house, and say, “Wow, they did a good job on your house — that’s
a work of art.” And an art critic might look at the landscape hanging on your
wall and say, “That’s rubbish; there’s no artistic value at all.” But the fact remains that the wiring is concealed inside the wall, while the painting is prominently displayed in front of the wall.
My definition of art does, of course, contain a key ambiguity: What constitutes a “significant” number of people? I can live with that ambiguity. The definition still has substance, because it asserts, at the very least, that if a work that
attracts an audience of a hundred people is art, then another item that attracts a
thousand must also be art — or conversely, that if an item that attracts an audience of a thousand people is not art, then another item that attracts only a hundred is also not art. It is not too difficult to find cases where the art crowd would
violate this rule.
Superficially, my art definition seems to agree with the maxim “beauty is in
the eye of the beholder,” since it places the measure of art in the hands of the
largest body of beholders; the general public. But the “beholder” canon is actually meant to imply that beauty is undefinable, varying so much from one person’s tastes to those of another as to render any attempt to quantify beauty impossible and meaningless. That conclusion would be warranted only if tastes
varied widely over the population, and in a manner that was distributed evenly.
What we actually have in the real world is a massive consensus of what is beautiful and what is not. Take a test audience of a thousand randomly selected subjects, and show them a set of twenty photos of randomly selected people. Ask
each test subject to order the twenty photos according to attractiveness, from
least attractive to most. You will probably find that although the order would
vary from one subject to the next — perhaps even being unique to each test subject — certain aspects of the order would not vary much at all. There would be
many cases of two of the photos being consistently in the same order relative to
each other. What these results would show is that while there is some wiggle
room for variation in taste, perception of beauty is massively constrained by an
overwhelming consensus of who is better-looking than whom.
This huge consensus has a way of dictating the life experience of individuals,
particularly when it comes to dating. A simplified but nevertheless revealing
model of dating is depicted in Figure 4-1. We start with twenty heterosexual individuals (ten of each gender) who have just reached dating age. These individuals are ordered from 1 to 10 according to their attractiveness, 10 being the
most desirable. All ten males are attracted to the one female whose attractiveness ranks 10, and likewise all ten females are attracted to the one male who is
also a 10. Only the two 10s find themselves mutually attracted, so they marry.
This naturally disappoints the remaining eighteen individuals, but they soon get
over it and start pursuing the two 9s. Again, only the two 9s are mutually attracted, so they marry next. This process continues on down the scale (possibly
over a course of years) until the two 1s marry each other, or until the degree of
attraction is too low to sustain further marriage, in which case the bottom several
individuals do not marry.
If this model is correct (even approximately), what does it imply or predict?
A few things:
1. In most marriages, the two individuals will be about as desirable as each
other, on the society-wide scale.
2. The really good-looking people will marry early in life, and the less-attractive people will marry later after a long and hard search for the “right person” — actually a long and hard process of discovering that they can’t get
someone much more desirable than themselves.
3. Persons of relatively low desirability will have more marital problems than
those who are highly attractive, since their marriage is largely a sham: a
game of “I can do that too.”
Looks matter, and they matter a lot. The old adage, “you can’t judge a book
by its cover,” is meant to imply that the real value of a person is not their exterior
appearance, but instead their personality, their generosity: what’s on the inside.
The truth is that both matter, and looks probably matter more, in that a very
good-looking person with an averagely reasonable personality will have far better luck in the dating game than an average-looking person with a wonderfully
compassionate, caring, understanding personality. This is true because the package, the cover, the exterior beauty is what people experience most. And not just
other people — you yourself experience your mate’s exterior looks far more frequently than his personality traits.
Let us return to the case of Apple Computer: The importance of exterior
looks is not lost on Steve Jobs, CEO of the company. Apple’s products, particularly after Jobs’s return to the company in 1996, have exuded a design philosophy of hiding rude functional necessities behind a deceptively simple and elegant exterior. Take his iPod music player, for example. (See Figure 4-2.) From
the outside it looks like a sleek, roundish rectangle of white acrylic and metal,
with a square screen and a disc-shaped controller flush with the surface. A very
small set of ports break the continuity of the top and bottom of the unit only. It
seems almost too simple to serve its purpose, yet it does so with remarkable
user-friendliness. Many competing players look almost as complex and utilitarian on the outside as they do on the inside when dissected.
Steve made some very interesting observations very early on about how [the
iPod] was about navigating content. It was about being very focused and not
trying to do too much with the device — which would have been its complication and, therefore, its demise. The enabling features aren’t obvious and evident,
because the key was getting rid of stuff. —Jonathan Ive, iPod designer25
Throughout his reborn, post-millennium career at Apple, Jobs has placed at
least as sharp an emphasis on perfection in the exterior appearance and user-interface experience of his products as he did during his earlier years, but has been
newly willing to compromise on the contents of the user-invisible interior.
Throughout the 1980s, Apple had a very hard time competing with less esthetically refined products from Microsoft and the the major Windows PC makers
(Gateway, Compaq, Dell, etc.). In hindsight, this failure appears to be the result
of a desire that the guts of the computer be as perfectionist as the exterior and the
end-user appearances: The first Mac was loaded with custom components that
were both expensive and largely incompatible with what most other people were
already using. In recent years, however, Apple seems to have learned that while
perfectionism is as critical as ever to the end-user presentation, the guts of the device should focus on efficient functionality alone. Today’s Apple products are
built mostly from inexpensive, commoditized components, and the iPod’s lack of
successful competitors is testimony to the value of this principle. iPod is the first
Apple product ever to dominate its field with market-leading share.
Prior to the release of the iPod Shuffle and iPod nano, each model of iPod
worked with both Apple’s own FireWire connector and the competing USB2 connector. The mere inclusion of USB2 support was a seriously utilitarian concession, by Apple’s earlier standards. When the diminutive Shuffle and nano came
out, their size constraints permitted support of only one of the two connector
types, and Jobs chose USB2 simply to ensure the widest range of compatibility
with the current consumer base of computers — even though that move might be
the last straw on the camel’s back for any possibility that FireWire would win out
against USB2 in the long run. (Apple’s latest, video-capable iPod also sports only
a USB/USB2 port, not a FireWire port.) When IBM dropped the ball on keeping
up with Intel’s manufacturing process refinements, Jobs jumped ship in 2005,
switching his whole platform from IBM’s PowerPC chip to Intel’s x86 line — a
move he admitted Apple had been well-prepared to make for five years before it
became necessary. The x86 ISA (instruction set architecture) is ancient, designed
for processor technologies and programming methods that have long been pathetically out-of-date. All x86 chips are immense in-hardware emulators that
fetch x86 instructions out of memory and translate them on-the-fly into a semi-
modern, pipelineable form before they can even be processed and executed. It is
indeed testimony to Intel’s manufacturing prowess that they have been able to
beat IBM even while strapped to such a horrifying kludge. It is also testimony to
the newfound pragmatism at Apple that Jobs would be willing to switch to such
a kludge. As long as the computer’s physical appearances and the OS’s elegance
and beauty are not compromised, he apparently realizes, the internal organs
should be designed around pure, market-driven efficiency and competitiveness.
— • —
Since most people are not at the top of the beauty spectrum, the idea that exterior
looks are critically important, and the implied musical-chairs-like model of dating described above, must seem rather bleak. But while genetically determined
looks may be essentially unmodifiable (or only in limited ways via surgery), can
your natural looks can be powerfully enhanced, in either a positive or negative
direction, by your fitness level? Can a natural 8 sink to the level of most 4s
through fitness neglect, and conversely can a natural 4 rise to the level of the
typical 8 by fitness diligence? The answer is “yes,” although curiously most people harbor a deep suspicion that it is “no.”
I ain’t gonna be just a face in the crowd
You’re gonna hear my voice
When I shout it out loud
“It’s My Life” — Bon Jovi
As I write parts of this book, I am sitting in a Starbucks coffee shop, consuming
my indulgence of choice: a Java Chip Frappuccino and a decadent, seven-layer
pastry. On any given day, I’m reasonably fit-looking, so if anybody is watching
me, they may be wondering, “How does he eat that junk and not blow up like a
balloon?” If anyone asks, they will get a rather mundane, even disappointing answer: I eat this stuff only one day a week.
The Story of Al
When I was in my early twenties, I got a job at a government contractor. Many
of the workers in my building were former government employees; older men
who were horribly out of shape. Their bodies resembled pears or large dumplings, with skinny, atrophied legs from sitting all day and never exercising.
Many of them smoked, and others had a ruddiness that made me suspect them
of drinking excessively in the evening. I was dismayed to have to work with
such people, and this gave me a stronger desire than ever to try to get in shape,
though my attempts at that time were still largely unsuccessful.
Al Smith (not his real name) was a middle-aged man who worked in our
building. He was of about average height, on the skinny side of normal, and had
a somewhat gruff temperament. I never conversed with him at length, but spoke
briefly with him to answer business-related questions. I paid no special attention
to him; he was just one of many persons in our building with whom I was familiar but didn’t really know personally.
Once, when I had just provided Al with some requested information, and he
had then walked away, one of my coworkers said, “Hey, see that guy Al you
were just talking to?”
“Yeah — what about him?” I replied.
“He used to weigh three hundred pounds.”
“No way! That guy?” I was incredulous.
“Yes, he did! His doctor told him he was going to die if he didn’t lose weight.
Haven’t you seen him walking along the main boulevard that goes by our building here?” my coworker asked.
“Now that you mention it, I have seen him walking the sidewalk there, usually around lunchtime.”
“Yeah, he’s doing that for exercise. His doctor told him he had to start exercising and lose weight or he was going to die. He lost a whole bunch of weight.”
My coworker didn’t seem to be joking, and I had no reason to think he was
making the story up. So logically, I believed that what he was telling me must be
true. But somehow, looking at skinny Al, it just seemed hard to believe. Not
having ever seen him fat, I just couldn’t really picture him that way. Part of my
mind refused to believe that what I was being told was really true.
Months went by and Al disappeared from our building. I didn’t even notice
his departure; in retrospect I’m convinced he must have been moved to another
building down the road where I never had the opportunity to run into him.
Three or four years passed, by which time I was in a new group with new coworker friends. We had a good time there — or as good a time as could be had
working in Dilbert world. (Scott Adams’s “Dilbert” comic strip didn’t actually
exist then, but we were living in it nonetheless.)
One week, there was a big shift of employees, and a new group of workers
moved into the set of cubicles near my group’s area. We didn’t work with these
people, but they were close by and so we saw them a lot. One of them was Al.
He had gained the weight back and must have been in the neighborhood of 300
pounds. I didn’t recognize him at first; I just thought, that’s a very obese older
guy who dresses sloppily, looks serious all the time, and has a lot of busy-looking papers all over his desk. Then after a few days I happened to be walking by
his station and noticed his nameplate: “Al Smith.” Oh my God, it’s him, I
thought. Knowing who it was, I could now recognize his face and demeanor
through the fat. My coworker’s story from years ago was all too true, I realized.
This was a much bigger wake-up call to reality than just seeing out-of-shape
guys in the building. Here was living, breathing proof that a person could be a
totally normal weight at one time, and then just a few years later (if not less), the
same person could be severely overweight. All my life prior to that, everyone I
knew seemed to be about the same weight the entire time I knew them. They
were each perpetually fat, perpetually thin, or perpetually in-between. Seeing so
dramatic a change was something of a shock to my mental picture of weight and
fitness, and how it all really works.
My new coworkers had never seen Al when he was thin, so he was no big
deal to them — just another very overweight person — but I couldn’t help harboring a morbid curiosity about the guy. Without being overt, I kept an eye on
him and thought about him periodically. Gradually, as days turned to weeks
and then months, I began to feel deeply sorry for Al. And these feelings puzzled
me because I’d never felt that way about fat people before. I didn’t necessarily
condemn them in my mind, but neither did I feel sorry for them. So why was I
feeling that way about Al? Because I had seen him thin? No, that would make
me feel less sorry, not more; it proves he is capable of fitness.
The question nagged me until I began consciously exploring it, and then it
suddenly hit me what it was about Al that was making me feel bad for him. Al
never ate anything. Not a thing! I never saw him eating or drinking. Not even a
diet soda, or a cup of coffee, or even water. I never saw him drink from a water
fountain. Other workers were snacking on and off the whole day. I myself
fought a losing battle with the vending machines, and frequently could be seen
munching on donut sticks or chocolate bars at my desk. Some kind of drink was
never far from my grasp. But Al never put anything to his lips; neither did he
have any kind of food or drink on his perpetually busy desk.
Once I realized this, I also realized that if I ever had seen Al putting food in his
mouth, I wouldn’t have felt so sorry for him. My mental image of him would
have included the image of an immensely obese person putting food in his
mouth. But not having ever seen it, I couldn’t easily form a mental picture of it.
Logically, I knew Al had to be eating something somewhere — otherwise he
would starve to death, and on the way to death-by-starvation he would hit a normal weight. But my mind couldn’t really believe that he was eating much. I just
hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.
Now that I knew what was making me feel sorry for him, my sympathy was
tempered, but only slightly. I still couldn’t shake the feeling that Al had to limit
himself to very little food, in order to combat his weight problem, and so was living the worst of both worlds — food deprivation plus extreme obesity.
But soon that would all change. One day, Jim, a friend and coworker, said
“Hey, I hear there’s a really good, cheap, pizza buffet down the road. Let’s check
it out!” So we did; about six of us. And when we walked into the pizza parlor,
guess who was there? Al. He was by himself, and he had brought work with
him. His plate was piled four slices deep with thick pizza, and he was eating it
like there was no tomorrow. My gang had to wait in line to pay and get our
plates. Al was eating the whole time. He stayed there and ate nearly as long as
we did, departing just a few minutes before we got up and left.
Now my mental image of Al was drastically different, but it would become
even more different about a week and a half later. My group decided to visit the
pizza buffet again, and the exact same thing happened. Al was there by himself;
he had brought work with him; he was eating pizza nonstop; and he got up and
left a couple minutes before we did. We went back there a few more times over
the next several months, but never saw Al there again.
Now, it’s hypothetically possible that it was a complete coincidence. Maybe
Al went there and started eating his pizza just before we walked in the door.
And maybe he was ready to leave just a few minutes before we were. And
maybe he happened to go to that buffet the same two days we did, in a span of
two weeks or more. But there’s a much more likely explanation. Al had been
stuffing his gut every day at that buffet for quite some time before we saw him
there. And when we came in the door, he had already been there for a while. He
recognized us, and when it was apparent that we were winding down and
would soon be leaving, he got up and left, so as to save some face — to leave
some doubt in our minds that he was really there much longer than we were. He
continued going to that buffet, figuring we wouldn’t come back; but then we did,
so he decided to find a new place.
The images of Al and of the other painfully out-of-shape workers at that company have stuck in my mind ever since, and I gained a few lessons from this experience:
Fitness neglect leads to a profoundly unattractive body in middle and older
People can change dramatically from thin to fat and vise-versa, in just a
You can’t tell what people are doing fitness-wise by what you see them doing — you only see a fraction of their time, and they know when you’re
Getting On the Richard Simmons Show
In 2002, the Discovery Health channel aired an interesting program about obesity, titled Big As Life; Obesity In America. One of the main features of the show
was the story of a very overweight woman, Doris Skiba, who in the early 1980s
decided that she would try get on the then-popular Richard Simmons exercise
show by losing weight. She went on a very low-calorie diet — about 600 calories
a day, far less than the number of calories needed to support a normal weight for
her height — and rapidly lost 150 pounds over the course of about seven months.
She sent letters to the Richard Simmons Show, documenting her progress. Then,
when she reached her normal weight, to her great delight she received an invitation to be on the show.
She was flown out to California and was a big feature of one day’s show. Her
weight loss was truly striking — she looked like an utterly normal, fit woman,
whom you would never guess had been very obese just a little over half a year
ago. It truly looked like a testament to the value of rapid weight loss via very
low-calorie dieting. Then her stay with the Simmons entourage was over. She
went home, and the weight started coming back. To document her discouragement and despair, she shot a sequence of artsy, black-and-white, film noir photographs of herself gaining weight. A typical photo showed her sitting glumly in
front of a huge pile of doughnuts, apparently powerless to stop them from putting her back to her original weight. Today (or as currently as reported in Big As
Life) she is as heavy as ever, and has decided that this is just who she is, and
probably always will be — she now serves as an advisor to the International Size
What did Big As Life have to say about Skiba’s story? It seemed that they
wanted to portray her in as positive a light as possible: Very little was said about
her eating habits before and after her I-wanna-be-on-Simmons diet. Practically
the only analysis offered by Discovery Health’s program was that she was a victim of the so-called starvation alarm clock. According to its promoters, the starvation alarm clock is a survival mechanism built into your brain. It detects starvation, and forces you to eat and gain weight, as a precaution against starving to
death. The starvation alarm clock theory is widespread and uncritically accepted
by many (even by Bill Phillips, my own personal fitness inspiration).
I can’t say with certainty that something like a starvation alarm clock doesn’t
exist in the human brain, but I have to wonder: Why didn’t the alarm clock start
ringing when Skiba was one quarter of the way into her weight-loss goal? Or
halfway there? Or two-thirds? Why did the starvation alarm clock just happen
to wait until she had lost enough weight to get on the Richard Simmons show?
That’s a funny coincidence — to say the least.
Since Big As Life offered so little in the way of analysis, I feel compelled to
evaluate the situation myself, with a special eye towards direct, obvious explanation. Figure 4-3 represents a hypothetical situation similar to that discussed in
Big As Life. The solid curve represents a person’s weight changing over time, and
the dotted line represents that same person’s eating level. Since your weight is
approximately proportionate to the number of calories you eat, these two quantities — weight and caloric consumption — can be graphed together, and with the
knowledge that your weight moves asymptotically towards your eating level. The
asymptotic approach is because the closer your weight comes to corresponding
to your eating level, the smaller the excess (or deficit) of calories becomes, and so
the weight change steadily slows.26
In the first phase of the Figure 4-3 graph (before “diet start”), the subject’s eating level is at “very obese,” and so is her weight. In the second phase (between
“diet start” and “Richard Simmons”), her diet is slightly below “death,” and her
weight plummets asymptotically towards death. However, when her weight hits
“normal,” she appears on Simmons, and then returns to her “very obese” diet.
Again, her weight asymptotically moves to match that level.
The tale of Figure 4-3 is by no means exceptional. Probably many thousands
of people go through a virtually identical experience in any given year. I myself
once did a less dramatic, one-month version of the same scenario. My motivation to get down to a healthy weight was so I would look good in a Halloween
costume. Halloween lasted one night — then my excess weight came back in
What did this woman do wrong? Well, for starters, she chose a very ephemeral motivation for losing weight, and got very ephemeral results. How long can
you be on The Richard Simmons Show, or for that matter, how long can you be a
celebrity of any kind simply for having achieved dramatic weight loss? In most
cases, not very long. (About as long as a typical Halloween party.) Since junk
food tastes great, and exercise is uncomfortable and requires effort, you can’t expect to stay in shape without sufficient motivation, and if you want to stay in
shape for years to come, you will need a motivator that’s going to last that long.
Everybody has their own motivators — no fitness book will tell you yours — but
your motivator needs to be one that will keep coming back at you again and
again for years to come.
The other big mistake depicted in Figure 4-3 is that the subject never spent
any sustained period of time eating the right quantity of food. Where on the
graph does the dotted line, which represents her eating level, hold steady at
“normal?” Nowhere. In other words, the subject is not learning to eat a normal,
healthy amount of food and then stop until her next meal. She’s always eating a
highly abnormal quantity: Either way too much or way too little. Probably the
most important part of a nutrition program isn’t just getting to your target
weight — it’s learning to eat normal quantities of food on a day-in, day-out basis.
Figure 4-4 shows what would have happened if the same subject had switched to
a normal diet: Her weight would have dropped to normal, but it would have
taken longer to get there, and because of the asymptotic nature of the decline,
there would be no sudden arrival at the desired weight — one day, she would
just look in the mirror and realize that she was already there, and had been there
for some time.
Learning to control your eating in a nation overflowing with tempting desserts and snacks is not easy or fun, and it requires finding a healthy diet that you
can live with for the long term; not a temporary fix. Going on a very low-calorie
diet, devoid of rich sweets, is actually a way to avoid learning to eat normally.
Why learn to stop at one, modestly sized piece of birthday cake when you can
just avoid the cake altogether and dream of how many entire cakes you will devour when you reach your target weight?
Once I attended a weight-control group discussion session, in support of a
family member. Each member of the group told stories of his or her past week,
and two of those stories stuck in my mind. The first story came from a woman
whose husband had brought home a box of twelve snack cakes. He ate one of
them, and put the rest of them in the pantry. The next day, he couldn’t find them
because she had eaten them all. He got mad at her, she got mad back, and the
whole scene was ugly. The advisor in charge of the session told this woman that
her husband needs to keep snacks like that in the cab of his truck and not let her
know that they are there.
Another woman spoke of her annoying ex-roommate who was perpetually
skinny, but seemed to eat whatever she wanted to. The most annoying thing
about this roommate was how she would eat half of a candy bar and then leave
the other half sitting in its wrapper on the kitchen counter, or eat half a bag of
chips and then throw the rest away after they got stale.
It wasn’t my place to take over the meeting or contradict the advisor, so I kept
my mouth shut, but I would have liked to tell the group that learning to not eat
food even though it’s available is vital to learning to control your weight and develop healthy eating habits. Why was the latter storyteller bothered that her
roommate would leave a candy bar half-eaten? Was she tempted to eat the other
half? Probably not. More likely, she was irritated at the physical demonstration
that it’s possible to stop eating halfway through a candy bar. It’s difficult to enjoy
a candy bar when you’re above your preferred weight, and so one of the great
tricks to assuage feelings of guilt is to to convince yourself that once you start eating the candy bar, you simply have to finish it. That way, the crime was merely
ripping open the wrapper — after that, the offense becomes water under the
bridge, and you can enjoy eating the bar, knowing that it’s just not proper to stop
halfway through. When her roommate did stop halfway through, it was extremely irritating to this woman because it reminded her that she could do the
same, and thus spoiled her enjoyment of candy bars and other sweet snacks.
Thinking about it later, I formulated a few simple exercises in self-control,
which I would recommend to anyone who has similar feelings that the availability of food is an irresistible destroyer of good eating habits:
• Buy a box of individually wrapped snack cakes.
• Take it home without opening it on the way.
• Open it in the kitchen and eat one of the individually wrapped
• Put the remainder in a kitchen cabinet where you will see it periodically, and leave it there for one week.
• Take it out and throw it away (into a trash receptacle from which
it cannot be retrieved).
When you have successfully completed Exercise 1, move on to Exercise 2:
• Go to a fast-food burger restaurant and buy a typical meal — one
burger, one medium-sized order of fries, and a medium-sized
• Consume half of everything: Half of the burger, half of the fries,
and half of the soda. (Do not pre-divide the meal into halves before eating — just start eating and then stop at half.)
• Throw the rest away on your way out of the restaurant. Don’t eat
anything else for at least two hours.
When Exercise 2 is performed correctly, move on to Exercise 3:
• Go to a party where snacks are in plentiful supply.
• Wait until at you have seen at least three other people graze the
snack layout. (Persons who already have a plate of snacks in
their hand when you arrive don’t count.)
• Make yourself a plate of snacks.
• Eat most of it, but leave a little uneaten.
• Don’t touch the snacks again for the rest of the party — find a
conversation or activity to keep yourself busy instead.
In case you’re wondering: Yes, I have actually done these exercises myself,
exactly as described. They seem so trivial, yet they can really begin a change in
your mind about who you are and what you can do. In 2002, CNN ran a show
about sustained weight loss and fitness titled Fat Chance, featuring two persons
as prime examples of successful lifestyle change (sustained weight loss): a
woman named Karen Brown and a man named Robert Romaniello. Each, the
show revealed, keeps a big stash of junk food in one part of their kitchen: Karen
has a “goodie drawer” filled with “fudge-covered ice cream cones, tacos, popcorn with lots of butter,” and Robert has a “secret cupboard” containing Wheat
Thins, lemonade mix, angel food cakes, and fudge-dipped chocolate-chip granola
bars, among other things. He also has ice cream in his freezer — as presumably
does Karen since her fudge-covered cones wouldn’t be much fun to eat by themselves. Clearly, both Karen and Robert have learned not to eat such foods even
though they’re nearby, and they are not under the spell of thinking that they can
be healthy by insulating themselves from opportunities to be unhealthy.
Why Fitness Is So Difficult
Why is fitness so difficult for so many people? The answer is tied into the phenomenon of hidden difficulty masked by apparent effortlessness. Let’s start with the
basics: If you eat healthy foods, in moderate amounts, and exercise regularly,
you will become fit. Not immediately; not overnight — expect it to take about
three to six months. And once you’ve become fit, you will stay fit as long as you
maintain that eating/exercise pattern.
healthy food + moderate amounts + regular exercise = fit
(“Healthy food” in this case means food that derives most of its calories from
protein and complex carbohydrates, as opposed to sugar and fat. You probably
also need to take supplementary vitamins.)
If you eat unhealthy foods, in excessive amounts, and don’t exercise (or exercise way too little), you will become fat. And once you’ve become fat, you will
stay fat as long as you maintain that eating/exercise pattern. (That’s right, fatness has to be maintained — if you don’t maintain an unhealthy eating/exercise
pattern, you cannot stay fat.)
unhealthy food + excessive amounts + little exercise = fat
We’ve all heard this before, probably many times, from various sources:
friends, family, nutrition experts, fitness gurus, and scientists who interpret experimental evidence of how the body works. I myself certainly have heard message A-B many times over the course of my life. But is A-B the only message
we’re getting? I think it can’t be. If A-B were all there was on the table, I think
fitness would be the rule, not the exception. Most people would have no trouble
at all staying fit, and fat people would be a small minority of the population.
Further, among those who were fat, the great majority wouldn’t be chronically
frustrated about it. They might not want to be fat, but they would know that
Facts A & B are the way it works, and they would be stoically resigned to the fact
that they are simply choosing path B at the moment. If and when they wanted to
become fit, they would know exactly what to do, and about how long to expect it
But the actual situation (in the USA at least) is that about two-thirds of the
population is overweight,27 and a large percentage of them are very frustrated
about it. They feel depressed, discouraged, confused, misled, and have a strong
fear that nothing they do is going to work. New diet plans emerge every few
years, but none of them seem to help, except on a very temporary basis.
Some other message must be on the table besides A-B. But what? The answer
is that people don’t just listen to what fitness experts say — they also observe
what other people around them are doing. And what do they see; i.e. how do
people behave around others with regard to fitness?
Fit people do not like to stick to their fitness diet all the time — they like to eat
unhealthy food every now and then — not too often, of course; maybe 10% of the
time. When do they most like to eat with abandon? When they’re socializing
with friends or family members, or attending special functions or events. That’s
when they don’t want to stick to their diet; that’s when they want to kick back,
relax, and take it easy.
Fit people also do not make a special point of talking about the exercise
they’ve done recently. It looks bad for a fit person to be purposely mentioning
recent exercise; it looks like bragging, and it alienates people. Further, since fit
people exercise a lot, they’re usually not sore from recent exercise, and don’t
have that physical reminder. And to the fit person, exercise doesn’t seem like
anything special — it’s like showering or brushing their teeth: something they do
all the time, and doesn’t need to be shared.
Fit people eat unhealthy food when socializing, and don’t make a point of
talking about recent exercise.
On the other hand, fat people do like to talk about recent exercise — they feel
sore from it, and it’s a special event that doesn’t happen very often. Plus, it
makes them feel more positive in the eyes of others to be “fat but exercising” — it
suggests that they haven’t thrown caution to the wind, and are actively trying to
do something about their weight. An overweight person who, earlier in the day,
put on jogging shorts and ran a mile, and is now socializing with friends, thinks,
“These friends of mine can see that I’m fat, but they can’t see that I ran a mile earlier today. They’re getting only the bad part of the picture. I need to tell them I
exercised so they can see the whole me.”
Also, fat people don’t like to eat large amounts of unhealthy food in front of
others, so they do it in private when friends and coworkers aren’t watching. It’s
not that they plan to deliberately deceive others, or mislead them about how fitness works — they just feel embarrassed and uncomfortable chowing down
while others are watching, and the only other time to do it is in private (or in
public among anonymous strangers, which is equivalent to privacy).
Fat people eat healthy food and/or moderate amounts of food when socializing, and make a point of talking about recent exercise.
Facts C and D have a profound effect on what appears to be true to the casual
observer (i.e. to just about everybody). C and D create the illusion that facts A
and B are not true. We will call this illusion X-Y:
Fit people can eat unhealthy food whenever they want, and don’t need to
exercise except when they want to — for recreation or to show off. Fit
people are naturally fit; they’re just built that way.
Fat people are naturally fat, and they must go on special, restrictive diets
and exercise programs just to keep their fatness to a manageable level.
Facts A and B are not what people observe most of the time — they observe the
facts C and D, and interpret that observation as X and Y. Again and again, X and
Y are impressed upon our minds by C and D. If you asked fitness experts to
name the most harmful fitness myth, they would probably say, “spot reduction”
— the idea that you can rid yourself of belly fat by doing abdominal exercise. I
think, however, that Illusion X-Y is more prevalent and far more harmful. What
effect does it have on the average person who is fighting the battle of the bulge?
A typical chronological scenario might go like this:
1. You have been on path B and are therefore overweight. Y tells
you that you will always be overweight, and can make only a
small dent by trying to slim down. X tells you that fit people are
getting to eat whatever they want, and don’t have to bother with
exercise, so why should you sacrifice just to be a little less fat?
You decide not to bother, and you stay on path B, remaining
2. Every now and then, you hear some fitness pitch of A-B, and it
gives you the motivation to switch to path A. You remain on
path A for a week or two, but then look in the mirror and see that
while you are noticeably less fat, you’re still fat. This seems to
confirm Y. You become discouraged and decide that it isn’t
worth it. You go back to path B.
3. Eventually, one of your sporadic efforts to get in shape sticks; this
time you religiously keep with a good fitness program (path A)
for a few months. The results are striking, and you have finally
achieved a healthy, fit body. But you believe that you have arrived at point X — that you have become one of the “naturally
fit” and can now leave dieting and exercise behind. This is a mistake; there is no point X, and no one is really there. Believing you
have arrived at X, you are in reality switching back to path B.
The weight comes back, and now you become totally convinced
that you must be “naturally fat,” as predicted by Y.
What can be done about illusions X and Y? Not much, as far as I know. C and D
are natural consequences of the fact that people know when they are being
watched, and naturally reinforce X and Y in the minds of the watchers. Exposés
of this situation — such as the one you are reading here — may help for some,
but X and Y are stubborn creatures, not easily unseated from the heads of Jane
and John Q. Public. Look at my story of Al, and you can see how hard it was for
me to believe what I was being told, until I saw it with my own eyes.
Also, X and Y are difficult to unseat because they are beautiful. Like evolutionists who want to believe that complex body functions arise automatically out
of simple physical rules, or Christians who want to believe in a hand-waving
God whose desire creates by magic, many people cling to point X because it offends their concept of beauty to believe that lengthy, painstaking, manual effort
is required to create an attractive effect. No one really wants to believe that the
price of fitness is perpetual dietary sacrifice and exercise. It’s a much prettier vision to imagine that fitness can be free and automatic as described by X. And Y
is also very attractive to those that are fat — for how comforting must it be to believe that you’re naturally overweight, and that getting to eat lots of delicious
food every day is your consolation prize for being trapped in a permanently fat
body. And how damaging to your self-esteem would it be to get in great shape
and, in so doing, reveal to yourself and to everyone else that you could have
done so long ago? It’s just another case of maintaining the illusion of infallibility
by refusing to publicly change one’s position.
The most important step I ever took towards fitness was the simple realization that there is no magic point X where constant junk food, frequently skipped
workouts, and fit, trim bodies all coexist. Remember that everyone (yourself included) wants to appear magically powerful, blessed with the ability to look
great without even trying, and it doesn’t take much in the way of selective revelation of your habits to foster that image in others’ minds.
Cause For Hope
How many times have you heard someone say, “Diets don’t work.” If you asked
this person to elaborate, you might get a story like this: “I tried Diet M, and it
worked for a while, but then the weight came back. So I tried Diet N, and it
worked too, but the weight came back. Same with diet O. Diet P didn’t even
work much at all. I’m sick of it — I’m sure that diets just don’t work.” It’s a harrowing tale we’ve all probably experienced to some degree or another, but
what’s really going on here? I would like to say to this person, “Diet M worked
until you stopped doing it. Same with N and O. Diet P, presumably, really
doesn’t work. So you have three diets that work to choose from, and instead, you
conclude that diets just don’t work. Why not return to diet M, if it was no harder
than N or O?” What this person really wants is a diet that takes the weight off
permanently — in other words, a diet that takes him to point X.
Diets do work — the trick is to find one that doesn’t coddle illusions, and that
you like enough to keep doing for the rest of your life. I recommend using these
two simple screening devices:
Diet Screen 1: Is this diet promoting the A-B model of fitness, or the
X-Y model? A helpful fitness plan (one that focuses on A-B) will
tell you what kind of sacrifices and actions must be achieved to
stay on path A, and how to combat urges to revert to path B. A
harmful fitness plan will offer some magic shortcut to point X,
where you can do anything you want and still be fit. Such plans
usually sell a message of the form, “Just do such-and-such, and
you can eat all you want and still lose weight.”
Currently, the most popular diet28 is Atkins, which in a nutshell says “you don’t
have to worry about fat intake as long as you avoid virtually all carbohydrates.”
Clearly, this diet is promoting something like the magic point X. How can you
eat large quantities of fatty foods like nuts, fried eggs, and bacon, and expect to
get healthy? The only reason I can see why Atkins has even a chance of working
is that you might get sick of eating high-fat foods and stop eating them. Of
course, if that causes you to jump back to carbs, then you’re no longer following
Atkins, and cannot attribute your subsequent weight gain to the Atkins plan.
Michael Fumento’s (pre-Atkins craze) The Fat of the Land does a splendid job of
debunking other just-do-this diets, such as the fat-free frenzy championed by Susan Powter in the 1990s, Stuart Berger’s food allergy diet, and the widely exploited claim that fat people eat the same amount (or less!) than fit people.
One more bit of it’s-so-easy bunkum deserves mention: Several years ago I
saw a health expert making a guest appearance on a nighttime news magazine.
She held up a tiny cube of fat about the size of a sugar cube, then proceeded to
inform the audience that this is the amount of food they need sacrifice every day
to keep from becoming overweight. Her logic was that if you take the average
weight gain over a period of many years for a survey group, and divide that gain
by the number of days in the survey period, then it comes out to the number of
calories in a tiny cube of fat! Is it really that easy? No, it isn’t. The math looked
sound (as I recall), but it was based on the ridiculous assumption that average
persons make no attempt at weight control for the multiyear period of the survey —
they just eat like pigs and throw exercise to the wind. That’s absurd, of course.
What this expert’s math really indicates is that average persons (of the type surveyed) won’t gain weight if they make all the sacrifices they’re already making,
plus the tiny-cube-of-fat-per-day sacrifice that she said is “all they have to do.”
Diet Screen 2: How fit is the promoter of this diet? How many success stories can this diet show off, and how fit are those people?
Dr. Phil McGraw — as bluntly noted by “shock jock” radio commentator
Howard Stern — is fat. He isn’t immensely obese, and he looks okay in a suit on
the cover of his weight-control bestseller, The Ultimate Weight Solution: The 7 Keys
To Weight Loss Freedom, but you can tell just by looking at his face and neck that
he couldn’t pose in swim trunks and expect very many people to jump at his fitness program. David Letterman got big laughs when he included Dr. Phil in his
Top Ten Signs You’re On A Bad Diet: “It’s a Dr. Phil diet, and after two weeks you
look exactly like Dr. Phil.”29 A&E’s Biography program about the late Dr. Atkins
showed no pictures in which Atkins looked significantly more fit (or less covered
with clothing) than the current Dr. Phil, even though the show went all the way
back to the 1972 first publication of his diet. Nor did the show reveal any particularly impressive before-and-after examples of non-celebrity successes. I have
to admire Jared Fogel for turning around a 425-lb. body to just 190 lbs. on his
self-styled Subway sandwich diet, although it should be noted that his diet was
only a little closer to normal than the I-wanna-be-on-Richard-Simmons diet.
(Perhaps becoming a long-term Subway spokesman gave him the motivation to
learn a normal eating pattern after he reached his target weight.) But I’ve never
seen a Subway commercial where Jared’s body wasn’t hidden behind fairly loose
clothing (or once, in a beach-set spot, behind a very out-of-focus camera lens).
Clearly, Dr. Phil, Dr. Atkins, and Subway’s Jared cannot pass Screen 2 — unless
your honest, inner goal is merely to avoid extreme obesity.
Of course, it must be noted that a truly fit spokesperson does not guarantee a
valid program, because who can say if the spokesperson is truly following his or
her own program? Powter is a case in point — eat all the carbs you want and see
if you wind up looking like Powter in her ultra-fit, Stop the Insanity prime. But at
least a fit spokesperson knows how to be fit, and thus might be giving you the advice you need. And if large numbers of ordinary people have gotten great results by following that advice, then the odds of soundness go way up.
My Own Fitness Experience
For these reasons, I have to endorse Bill Phillips’s Body-for-LIFE program as the
best fitness plan available today. Mr. Phillips is in no way involved with my
book, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t take exception to much of what I’ve written on these pages, but his program is perhaps the only well-known plan that
passes the two Diet Screens described above (other than a few similar programs,
such as Tony Horton’s Power 90). It took me several tries before I did Phillips’s
BFL program exactly as required, but when I did, the results were astounding. I
also found that it was the first diet/fitness plan I’d ever tried that I can seriously
visualize myself doing for the rest of my life — and that’s important, because
otherwise, what’s the point? But as easy as the BFL program is compared with
things I’ve tried to do in the past, it still requires a separate motivation. Why do
you really want to be in great shape? If you can’t answer that question with anything more specific than, “It would be really cool,” then you haven’t found the
motivation you will need to stay on path A.
Besides giving me strong reinforcement of the A-B message, doing BFL also
taught me by direct experience that my fitness state is primarily a function of
what I have been doing for the past three months, and secondarily the three
months before that. Before doing BFL, I would see diabetes-supplies commercials starring Wilford Brimley, and I would think that his rotund, puffy body was
a function of how he’d been eating and exercising for decades. But now I know
it isn’t: Brimley’s current body is primarily a function of how he has been eating
and exercising for the last six months, with a special emphasis on the most recent
three months. In other words, the reason that Brimley is very overweight today
is not because he spent most of each day on the couch ten years ago, or because
of anything he ate five years ago, or because of any exercise he failed to do two
years ago. It’s because he has been on path B for most, if not all, of the past three
months. He has been eating badly and exercising inadequately very recently.
Have I been fit ever since doing Phillips’s challenge? No! I haven’t slid all the
way back to my “before” state, but I’ve slid maybe halfway back for extended periods. As of this writing, I’m very fit after completing my twenty-fourth consecutive week on the program. But keep in mind, neither BFL nor any other fitness
plan will ever magically compel you to stay on it. I recommend BFL here because not only has it worked very well for me, and largely rescued me from a
chronic weight problem that I had for many years before finding BFL, but because it puts my mind at ease about the whole fitness situation: Even when I’m
not in peak condition, I’m not frustrated, confused, or in despair over it. I know
exactly why I’m out of shape, and I know just what I need to do to get back in
shape. And I know that when I do it, it will work, and it’s very doable.
Free Will and Fitness
In any discussion of fitness, free will is bound to surface. Earlier in this book I essentially deny that truly free will really exists, and assert that the concept of free
will is useful for describing how one part of the brain has final say over decision-
making. Does that mean that trying to get fit is impossible, because we are powerless to choose to do so? It’s a good question, and the answer may not be within
human grasp. Let me just say that if you try to decide whether to get fit based on
whether you have free will, you are searching for your answer in Johnson’s “hall
of mirrors with no exit” (see chapter two). You may as well try to decide
whether to go to work today, as opposed to relaxing on the beach, based on
whether or not you have truly, metaphysically free will to make that choice. No
decision can be reached that way; you must find another basis for your selection.
I certainly do not know that I chose fitness “freely.” If I had never heard of
BFL, I might be very overweight today. Perhaps Phillips’s program, like Joe’s
strawberry challenge discussed earlier, caused me to get fit. Perhaps the advent
of great-tasting supplements like Myoplex made it possible for someone with my
sweet tooth to be fit at all. I don’t know; but I do know that trying to figure out if
I have free will is not the road to fitness, or to anything but perpetual confusion.
Just as the necessary starting point for science is to assume your own rationality,
sans proof (see Figure 2-9), so the necessary starting point of fitness is the presumption that you can do it. This starting point is so important that motivational
speakers like Tony Robbins have made whole careers out of persuading people
of this one point; in effect, issuing the strawberry challenge en masse to people
mired in a sea of self-doubt; trapped in Johnson’s “hall of mirrors.” Grand, metaphysical questions of free will, like the physics of Einstein and Bohr, must be put
aside when dealing with day-to-day, practical matters. We build buildings and
bridges with the presumption of Newtonian mechanics, and we build our bodies
with the presumption that we have the power to choose to do so.