There’s a scene from the 1997 film “Contact” that pops into my head every so often. Following her dramatic discovery of a communication sent to Earth from the Vegan (that’s VAY-gan, not VEE-gan) star system, Jodie Foster’s character is strapped into a spacecraft set sail for Vega’s glittering shores. The craft’s design is based entirely on blueprints sent in the alien message- all except certain precautions the Earthers added in. For starters, they supplied a chair with a seat belt for Foster to sit in. Safety first, of course. Those little green Vegans must have been space happy to overlook something like that. Where was she gonna sit? What if the ship collided with an asteroid?! What if she got pulled over?!?
The ride starts out rough. As Foster rips past the gas giants and into a wormhole, she’s shaken like a well blended martini. While struggling against the intense jolting vibrations, she notices that everything else in the craft is floating like a feather on a breeze. She then frees herself from the structure meant to protect her and proceeds to drift about effortlessly, unburdened by the “safety” of the chair, and even gravity. Suddenly she’s lighter than she’s ever been.
It was that easy.
That’s the highlight of the movie for me. Well, that and Matthew McConaughhey’s pleasing southern drawl and equally pleasing bare chest. Hoo doggies. Yes indeedy. Yowzers. What the hell was I talking about?
Right. Jodie Foster and the chair.
To me, that scene is a perfect metaphor for so many of the struggles we mentally and physically throw ourselves into. We believe we must stay put within a certain framework because it’s for our own benefit, see. We don’t have the courage to jump out of the chair because, well gee, then what would happen?
Take for example today’s monumental pressure to be cartoonishly physically perfect. To never grow beyond anything that could pass for age twenty two. Well we should diet and hit the gym and wax our unibrow and chide ourselves (and others) for not measuring up because hey, you gotta “take care” of yourself. Right? And really, you want to make a good impression. Who’s going to take you seriously if you’re an unkempt fatass? So choke down that protein shake, drop half your paycheck on a trendy wardrobe and don’t eat anything past 6 pm. If you must indulge your vile taste for muffin-top building muffins, go for the low-fat, low-flavor, low-guilt option. If you don’t, you’re a hideous beast and you deserve to die alone. Ok, maybe you can have some cats.
Most of us follow that basic script, don’t we?
Sure, sometimes we allow ourselves to “cheat” by imbibing a milkshake or growing our leg hair to braidable lengths during the fallow winter months. But these acts are slip ups, deviations from all that is good and holy. The goal remains, we are falling short of the glory and we know it. Now we have self-esteem issues. Now we’re trying new diets, new fasts, new cures. Now we have no energy and think we look gross so we won’t put on a swimsuit or have sex with the lights on. Now we’re in therapy. Now we’ve driven off our loved ones. Now we’re alone. Well, except for the cats.
But wait, what if you got out of the chair? That’s right. Unstrap yourself from the “safety seat” of social expectation and let yourself be…you. Yes, hideous unlovable you. Instead of micromanaging what and when you’re gonna eat and how long and hard you’re going to exercise, why not eat what you want when you’re hungry and run around for fun when you feel like it? See what happens, I dare you. You remember how, you managed to be a kid for a few years before the culture bore a hole through your heart, right? Allow yourself to be guided by your own instincts and inevitably reach your own beautiful, unique equilibrium. Float like a feather. Maybe get all Frida Kahlo and let the unibrow grow out. Or not.
Now I know what you’re thinking. If you follow my advice, you’re going to be fat and hairy and everyone will laugh at you. Well firstly, you probably won’t be fat. You probably won’t be Hollywood thin, but at least you’ll retain your soul. And your breasts.Trade offs, see. As for hairy, why not shave as much or as little as you like? I know most men relish the freedom to shun the razor, but for us girls it’s a different story. I mentioned to a smart, heterosexual girlfriend of mine that when I lived in Vermont, none of the gals there shaved their legs- and the guys dug it. She wrinkled her powdered nose with disgust and snarled that she wouldn’t want to “have to look at that.” Um.
Once a friend tried to pressure me into shaving my fuzzy armpits before going out. When I protested, she went for the hygiene angle. It’s “unsanitary” not to shave under your arms, she informed me. Bacteria gets caught in there, see. When I asked if she thought men were unsanitary for having brazenly unshaven armpits, she irritably spat out a “NO” and then failed to recognize that she was a complete and utter moron. Thus solidifying her status as one.
I worked at a diner once. As everyone with half a brain knows, the best part of waitressing in a diner is that you can eat free breakfast during each and every one of your shifts. Yet everyday when I settled down to a mountainous stack of french toast and bacon, my zeal would be dulled by the resentful glares of my apron-clad peers.
“How do you eat that stuff and not get FAT?” would be the woeful refrain. One girl was particularly miffed about it, as she was living off a steady diet of Newports and Special K Protein Water.
“I dunno” I would say. “I probably am fat, don’t you think?”
And then the body dysmorphia would kick in and the flashing blue eyes set atop the size three frame would scan my size nine and snap “NO you’re not fat. I could NEVER get away with eating like you.”
I didn’t make many girlfriends at that job. Tough crowd, I suppose. They were all on diets. But I did eat some phenomenal french toast. Besides, the guys in the kitchen loved me and they’re more fun anyway.
But rest assured. While you’re waking in the morning, unburdened by thoughts of self-loathing and underwhelming breakfast shakes, your detractors are going through a ritual of their own- one you may know all too well.
Wake up. Look in the mirror. Proceed to hate self. Eat scanty amounts of dietetic crap for breakfast. Feel better about self for eating so “healthy.” Notice people out in the world who are better looking than you. Hate them and feel bad about yourself. Notice people who are worse looking than you. Hate them and feel good about yourself. All day, concerns about your appearance hum like white noise in the back of your head. Someone says you look nice. Feel good for ten seconds. Resolve to work out more in order to change that “nice” to “thin”. Scan yourself in the mirror for the zillionth time. Notice a patch of renegade hairs sprouting betwixt your brows. Can’t find any tweezers. Feel bloated. Weird co worker eats french toast with butter and syrup right in front of you and doesn’t have the decency to realize she should be fat. Day ruined.
What a drag, right?
There’s another way. Jump off the rattling chair, Jodie Foster! Float in the zero G environment of living up to your own expectations and no one else’s. The only people who will give you crap about it are those who themselves follow the rules so stringently that they resent your freedom. First they’ll think you’re disgusting. Then they’ll decide you’re just ignorant. Once they understand that you opted out on purpose, they’ll be so befuddled they won’t know what to do. They might say mean things to you. They might try to reform you. They might break down and hail you as an inspiration. They might even try to date you (go figure). Don’t let it get to your head.
Follow your own star. It’s a fact that confidence is the most attractive thing going. If you don’t like yourself, you’ll constantly be hunting for validation from others to fill your empty heart. This will cause you to do terrible things like avoid (or overeat) birthday cake and post too many selfies to social media.
If instead you grow into yourself with grace and eschew the pressure to live up to some fleeting, invented standard of beauty, your inner light will shine through and surround you with a glow that no miserable diet could ever provide.
Like seriously, look at Frida Kahlo. People love her, even emulate her. And she had that god awful unibrow.