Skepticism and personal demons

Humanism isn’t just a lofty label to attach to what I aspire to, or to identify myself with a particular sect of humanity. It’s also a reminder to myself about how I want to live.

Today, I want to share something I read a while back on Greta Christina’s blog – a personal account of her struggle to reconcile her ideals as a skeptic with her daily life.

She opens her account with this question:

How do you be a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight?

On the one hand, she believes that society has an insanely inflated idea of the dangers of excess body fat, and that this distortion is especially bad for women’s emotional well-being. In her own words,

My attitude towards my fatness has largely been shaped by the feminist fat-positive movement: I wasn’t going to make myself miserable trying to force my body into the mainstream image of ideal female beauty, and I was instead going to work on being as healthy as I could be — eating well, exercising, reducing stress, etc. — at the weight that I already was.

On the other hand, she has a knee problem that makes it very sensible for her to try to lose weight.

Now, I suspect that many of the rational types in the audience are already shrugging and thinking, “What’s the issue? Follow the evidence, lose the weight, problem solved.”

But of course, anyone who has ever been through the emotional turmoil of unsuccessful dieting in the general atmosphere of society’s condemnation of excess weight can tell you that it’s not that easy. There is a minefield of emotions to navigate through, even when one has a very supportive and accepting social circle.*

Here’s an example that Greta Christina relates:

It’s really hard not to feel like a traitor about this. When I reach a benchmark in my weight loss and get all excited and proud, or when someone compliments me on how good I look now and I get a little self-esteem-boosting thrill, it’s hard not to feel like a traitor to my feminist roots, and to the fat women who fought so hard to liberate me from the rigid and narrow social constructs of female beauty.

So, she doesn’t just want to assert the right answer; she is also after ways to make it work in the messy, emotional rough-and-tumble of real life.

What I’m looking for is psychological tips. Ways of walking through the emotional minefield. Ways of framing this that make it more sustainable.

That’s how she closes the article.

Fortunately for those of us who want more, she has a follow-up article or two. And an ongoing blog that occasionally dips back into this intimately personal (but immensely valuable) journey.

Footnotes:

* To be perfectly clear, I have not been through such emotional trauma firsthand, but I have at least one very close friend who has walked that minefield. I have the blind luck to have a naturally thin frame: on the ancient savannah, I would have starved in the first half-decent drought. As it is, I can indulge in the gastric excesses of our culture without visible consequences. But I must remember, a healthy diet and regular exercise are as good an idea for me as for anyone – most of their benefits are not dependent on body size.

 

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6 Responses to “Skepticism and personal demons”

  1. siobhantebbs Says:

    Thank you for this. I have often been in similar quandaries myself. As a feminist, how do I deal with the fact that I need to succumb to certain social pressures in order to feel good about myself? At least there is a clear medical reason to lose weight or get toned. But what about wearing make-up or shaving legs or plucking eyebrows? I do all of these things because they help me to feel human, validated, presentable, attractive. I’m disgusted at the social pressure on women to spend so much of their time and money making themselves look a certain way – I’m reviled at this society in which women are still judged so much of the time on how they look. But I’m also perpetuating it. It is one hell of a conundrum!

    • Timothy Mills Says:

      Siobhan, I’m glad you found this valuable.

      As a man, I am decidedly less burdened by these insane requirements. And I do my best to avoid inadvertently adding to the load of (often hopelessly-conflicting) pressures women are burdened by.

      As humans and as humanists, our only choice is to start where we are, and take one step at a time in the direction we wish to go.

  2. jasonincontemplation Says:

    This was an interesting post. I think what your friend is struggling with indicates that skepticism is the incorrect view of reality. The Skeptic wants to say there are no absolutes in morality or aesthetics, we are just matter in motion, free to make our own rules. But I think the conflict she’s experiencing is the result of the fact that God has created this world with absolutes both in morality and aesthetics. People are supposed to be thin, that is what is objectively attractive, because God made it that way. That’s why the whole world is attracted to people who are physically fit. In fact, look at that phrase “physically fit,” just saying that brings to mind someone thin and muscular. Why is that? Because we all know that is the way we were intelligently designed to be.

    That’s why it helps her self-esteem when she notices she’s lost weight. That’s why the person commenting above “succumbs” to the social pressures. Because they are rooted in objective standards for human behavior, and their behavior reveals that.

    • Timothy Mills Says:

      Jason, I’m delighted once again that you have engaged with the ideas I present!

      Ultimately, my post (like Greta Christina’s before it) was not meant as an argument for a particular meta-ethical or aesthetic approach to weight. It was simply an expression of one of the tensions that we experience, fully-human, emotional, passionate beings trying to live up to a rational standard that doesn’t quite fit with our evolved nature. But the points you raise are interesting, so here is my reaction.

      I think what Greta Christina is getting at is that, on the one hand, she wants to affirm the essential value of everyone – a practice that involves setting aside the sometimes toxic criticisms that people (especially women) toil under. On the other hand, she want to employ the well-proven tools of skepticism to improve the world and her own life – a practice that involves unflinching acceptance of truths, even if they are truths that might sit comfortably in the mouth of one’s tormenters.

      The problem is not that there is some objective standard of beauty. That seems to be a category error: beauty is by its nature subjective. Even the example you give is obviously false. Depending on one’s culture, or even one’s individual inclination, one can be aesthetically or sexually attracted to thin people, fat people, or anyone in between.

      There are some things that seem to be universal – humans tend to have positive reactions to sweet, salty, and fatty foods, for example, and almost everyone enjoys the physical sensations of sex. There are some things that are pretty common – enjoying greenery, or heterosexual attraction. And there are some things that just aren’t. Music tastes, particular food preferences, specific sexual activities, political preferences.

      Unless you have some line of reasoning that can tease “right” from “wrong” tastes, and that can be shown to be better (ie, more true) than alternative lines of reasoning, then I think Hume’s is/ought divide remains unbridged.

  3. jasonincontemplation Says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You said, “Unless you have some line of reasoning that can tease “right” from “wrong” tastes, and that can be shown to be better (ie, more true) than alternative lines of reasoning, then I think Hume’s is/ought divide remains unbridged.”

    In response I’ll say this, you seem to be asking me for a syllogism proving my point, alas I’m no good at syllogisms at the moment, perhaps in the future I’ll learn more. But I don’t need a syllogism, that was kind of the point. Here is what I said again:

    “I think the conflict she’s experiencing is the result of the fact that God has created this world with absolutes both in morality and aesthetics. People are supposed to be thin, that is what is objectively attractive, because God made it that way. That’s why the whole world is attracted to people who are physically fit. In fact, look at that phrase “physically fit,” just saying that brings to mind someone thin and muscular. Why is that? Because we all know that is the way we were intelligently designed to be.

    That’s why it helps her self-esteem when she notices she’s lost weight. That’s why the person commenting above “succumbs” to the social pressures. Because they are rooted in objective standards for human behavior, and their behavior reveals that.”

    What I’m doing here is pointing out that the skeptic acts like they’re a Christian, while denying it with their mouth, to paraphrase Bahnsen. The Skeptic acts like there are objective realities in aesthetics in this case, but then denies them with their speech. There is a real antithesis between the behavior and the profession of the Skeptic, and that is my argument.

    One last thing on syllogisms, I think logic and science are great in principle, but they’re only as good as the understanding of the human mind using.them. When you deny spiritual reality for example, it seems impossible for someone to logically prove anything about God to you. In essence you are saying, “Step one in my thinking is that the spiritual in general, and the God of the Bible in particular, do not exist. Now prove to me that God exists using my secular starting assumptions, and logic.” Well, I think we can both see why that’s not going to happen.

    You mentioned Hume’s is/ought divide, but the problem is we don’t agree on what “is” to start with. I believe that spiritual knowledge informs our understanding of the physical world, there “is” more than just the physical. And again, my argument for that is the antithesis between what you claim, and the way you behave.

  4. Timothy Mills Says:

    I don’t care whether you support your position with syllogisms or with some other reasoning or evidence. So far, you have offered no reason at all for people to accept your position.

    So far, you have simply said that your god grounds objective facts about aesthetics and morality. You have not supported this assertion by pointing to reasons to accept it.

    For example, my own aesthetic sense prefers a decidedly higher amount of body fat on a person than the current social norm. Why should I accept your claim that being thin is objectively more attractive, over my own internal sense? Why would modern, Western attitudes about body composition be more objectively true than those of previous decades and centuries, or those of other cultures?

    You are accusing me and others of acting contrary to our stated beliefs – of “act[ing] like they’re a Christian, while denying it with their mouth”.

    What I see, and what I think I and others have articulated above, is that as humans (and humanists) we naturally and legitimately have many forces acting on our psychology – social, rational, and otherwise – and part of our job as humans is to find a way to navigate those forces so as to best promote our values.

    Do you ever experience this in your own life? Do you ever find that your human nature pulls you to act in one way, while your values as a Christian enjoin you to act in another way?

    I think it is no more inconsistent or dishonest for Greta, Siobhan, or me to act as described above, than it is for a Christian to struggle to live up to the standard of behaviour they see God requiring of them.

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