Was that my wife who gasped? Or was that me?
I think it was everyone. We were watching Thor, and Chris Hemsworth just peeled off his shirt for the first time, and I swear the air just went out of the entire theater.
Yes, I went a little gay for Chris at that moment. Maybe a lot gay. I also felt wholly inadequate. This is what a man was supposed to look like, and I would never look like that. My wife could gasp at that ideal, but she would end up going home with little old me. Chris, meanwhile, would carry on being Chris, and the world was chock-full of perfect specimens like him who don’t know what it’s like to eat half a dozen Krispy Kreme’s at a single sitting.
Except . . . there was more to that scene than met the eye. The brutal regime Chris underwent for that short take would be unrealistic for anyone to maintain. Even Chris.
Everyone should read this incredible piece in the New York Times detailing the demanding diet and workout routine actors suffer through for shots such as the one above. The article shows how fragile the careers of these actors can be and how much pressure they face to be bigger and beef-cakier. Even more powerful, perhaps, is this piece looking at how emotionally draining these shots can be for the same actors. As a male who grew up staring at bulging superheroes in skin-tight costumes, who watched Arnold kill aliens on the big screen, who then felt puny in front of his mirror, these stories come as a revelation. I can only imagine this is what women felt when they learned the truth behind those doctored fashion covers. The ideal I can’t live up to isn’t even possible for those who embody that ideal.
This is not to say that eating whole chickens and then cutting water weight for that one shot of Chris’s abs is quite the same as airbrushing and Photoshopping after a fashion shoot, but it is similar to the grueling dietary standards models, actresses, and dancers suffer in order to remain employed. I spent a lot of time around a dance company growing up, and I saw firsthand what those performers suffered. The pressure to stay unhealthily thin often came from each other and from family members. The need to achieve what was deemed to be “perfection” was intense, sad, and unrealistic.
From these exemplars, the pressure then falls to the rest of us. Grueling standards are portrayed as easy or harmless. But they aren’t.
I learned a long time ago that comparing up was dangerous. Reading People magazine or watching MTV’s Cribs is a quick way to make your own life feel unglamorous. I made a habit, then, of comparing down—of looking at those who would cherish what little I did have and feeling damn lucky as a result. This was healthier than peering up and seeing all the glaring deficiencies in my life.
Something like this came up over dinner last night. A friend mentioned the Fabulous Facebook Effect that occurs when we present only our highlights to the world. When all we see of each other’s lives is our vacations, our best meals, our post-workout photos, our new cars, our clean homes, our adorable children, what does this do to us? I like to think it mostly makes us happy for our friends and family, but does it come with a cost? Does it become difficult to look at ourselves in the mirror? To gauge our own lives? It’s the opposite of the wallscreen in the silo, which reveals an ugly world that makes us not want to explore. This is a similarly doctored view but of a utopia we can never reach. The results are largely the same.
Success can be like these culturally defined paragons of beauty, with an undeserved randomness that arises like the mixing of chromosomes. Yes, Chris works out and observes a strict diet and few could probably endure what he goes through—but the photo above captures for eternity what is maintained for only a brief moment. We don’t see Chris pumping iron right before that shot. We don’t see him cutting water weight for two days prior. We don’t hear him complaining and pining for a doughnut or a heel of bread. It looks so easy. Like anyone can do it. And dammit, we are failures if we don’t.
When I started writing, I allowed myself to dream of being a bestselling author. Hell, the funny thing is that I dreamed of this before I even started writing. Without a single book to my name, I dreamed of being a bestselling author. I also dreamed of winning the lottery, even though I have never bought a single lotto ticket in my entire life. These were unrealistic dreams. They were impossible dreams.
They became less impossible as I forced myself to write every day. But they remained just as unrealistic. Writing as a habit can be as grueling as eating 5,000 calories a day and working out for hours without ever slacking off. And as some of the actors in the Times piece found out, there’s no guarantee these brutal sacrifices will even get you a job. Your hopes can be dashed however hard you work. There is no recipe for success. No easy path you can take by placing one foot in front of the other.
What are we to do with this? Resign? Hell no. Finding out that the girl on the cover of the magazine has her blemishes airbrushed away, or that her waist was squeezed in with Photoshop, or that Chris walks around with 8-pack abs instead of a 12-pack abs (seriously, do those muscles even have names?!), is no reason to say “Fuck it” and give up. There is some middle ground of hopeful pessimism, where we know the odds and the expected outcomes, but we allow ourselves to strive and dream. There is some median where we can spend a few blissful moments with our heads on our pillows, thinking of what it would be like to find success or be healthier or happier, and then in the morning working toward those goals with the knowledge that we’ll never reach them. But that we will be better and full of joy for trying.
If you write a book, the reward will be having written a book. If you publish, the reward will be having published. Dream of seeing your name on bestseller lists. But don’t let dreams become expectations. Don’t feel like a failure when the lotto doesn’t hit your numbers.
I don’t have an easy answer for how to do this, how to bounce back and forth between flights of fancy and being sane and grounded. Hopeful pessimism doesn’t quite cover it, and neither does dire optimism. Maintaining a balance between the two isn’t realistic. Perfect bodies aren’t realistic. Expectations of fame and wealth aren’t realistic. I don’t think it’s even healthy to want these things. But it’s also not healthy to throw up our hands and quit giving a shit. It’s not healthy to eat poorly and wreck our bodies when we realize societal ideals are impossible and even unseemly. It’s not healthy to hold back our contributions to art because we fear the works won’t measure up and no one will ever care.
I think what is healthy is to hear how an actor suffers in order to fool us for just a moment or two. I think it’s healthy to see the before and after pics from Glamour Magazine. I think it’s healthy to tell you that the happiest I’ve ever been was those years of writing lottery tickets, not what came after I got lucky and won.
It’s not that I’m not grateful. I love the adventure that I’m on right now. I’m literally living my dreams. I pinch myself every single day. But maybe it helps to tell you that I miss my family when I’m on the road. That talking to my wife is hard when time zones don’t match up. That I cross the street to love on someone else’s dog because I haven’t seen mine in two months. That I took over 50 flights last year, spent more than 6 months of 2013 on the road, that I have to rush back to my hotel room to take a 5 minute nap to get through the next function, that I no longer have time to interact with friends and family on Facebook, that my hair is going gray from stress, and the 16-hour days are not sustainable.
This takes eating whole chickens and spending six hours in the gym every single day. For me, it’s worth it. But it isn’t easy. And wherever you are along this journey, and however you spend your time dreaming, find that balance of being happy for what you have while comfortably striving for what you want. Be okay with not getting it. But don’t give up. Does that sound possible, achieving that balance? It certainly isn’t easy. It might even be unrealistic. But throwing our hands up isn’t an option, and neither is holding up an ideal and hating what we see in the mirror. There is danger either way. Our wallscreens can show us a dystopia or a utopia, and both can paralyze us and make us miserable.
We have to see the world as it is and dream of the way we want it to be. This is the challenge of loving ourselves while wanting to be better. Of being satisfied while striving to improve. My name is Hugh Howey, and I don’t know about you, but I struggle with this every single day.