How Creepy Are We: Vanity and Self-Improvement

 ( Connected  | Screenshot)

(Connected | Screenshot)

Our solution is the problem. Our Way is the obstacle.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

If we looked at our culture, what would we see? If we looked at ourselves, how strange would we seem? Since we are used to ourselves, it's hard to notice, but that is the beauty of art. Art is a way to reflect society and highlight a version of ourselves we wouldn't normally see or perhaps would want to see, but one that we should spend some time thinking about.

Why can't we accept ourselves the way we are? Why do we need to be perfect? When the chase for perfectionism only makes us less accepting of ourselves? In German, there is a term for this cycle, it's "verschlimmbesserung"—worsening improvement; our solutions only make things worse. In particular, we are obsessed with beauty. There's a common word that perfectly illustrates this unhealthy obsession, it's "eerie"—to not only find the beauty within the creepy, but to be inspired by the beauty of the creepy (e.g., a beautiful ghost or a life-like machine).

More of the Same

One could say we have always wanted to improve, and since we are moving away from churches and aerobics classes, we believe we are finally getting somewhere. Less motivational speakers, bodybuilding, jazzercise, baptism, and quick fixes. More inspirational memes, productivity podcasts, CrossFit, yoga, cleanses, and quicker fixes. Fewer confessionals, more Facebook confessionals. Less talking to people, more talking to iPhones. Less writing of letters, more pictures on Instagram.

In many ways, the average American lives a better quality of life than the royalties of centuries past. Consider things we take for granted, such as sanitation, clean water, and access to medicine. With more money and better technology, we can fool ourselves into thinking we have transcended primitiveness and vapidity. But this chase, this idea that we are somehow lacking in a time of plenty, this need for wanting more, has only multiplied. We have it all so all that's left is for us to transcend and become demi-gods.

Scratching the Surface

We search for a better us, a new spirituality; yet we're still tadpoles swimming on the surface. We haven't gone beyond clichés and profound-sounding religious platitudes; we have only spun new clichés and profound-sounding platitudes that say nothing. A sexier, shinier, techno-magic version of the same inadequacies. We're not any deeper, in fact, we have fewer excuses for our shallowness since we've met many of our basic needs. And that is what is so creepy. We shouldn't be like this. We have the ability and the resources to move beyond the surface, but we choose not to—content in scratching the surface in newer ways. No need for communion, now we have supplements. A better magic elixir. If we are to be demi-gods, rather than god-like in all-knowing, we want to know less and be all-attractive.

Occasionally, we may unintentionally reflect deeper, into our depths—then we are told to quiet our minds, get rid of the noise, and to stop thinking. We take classes to do just that, to learn how not to think.

Dissonance

There is a growing contradiction; two movements have joined into one: the want for meaning and the want of vanity. Meaning doesn't want to be objectified, it doesn't care how it looks—it wants to make sense of things. Vanity only cares about how it looks, it wants to be objectified, it opposes meaning. And they have merged: wanting to wholly not care about how we look and wanting to look as good as possible. We take photos highlighting our best selves, then share it on the internet and ask not to be judged. We want to be as rich as possible but also not care about money. We want to be Zen but have the perfect body. We want to approach health in an unhealthy way. We work hard to look effortless. We want to grow old gracefully by hating being old. We are a clash of musical notes; rather than balance, there is only dissonance. We mistake contradiction for harmony. We tell ourselves, "I don't make sense. Everything I think contradicts itself. That must mean I'm Zen."

To some degree, we all are trading on idealized versions of ourselves. This has never been more clear with the advent of social media, where our public identities are entirely self-constructed and instantly surveyed, ranked, immortalized or trolled.
— Luke Gilford

This only exacerbates our emptiness. Rather than seeing the dilemma, we keep thinking we need more of the dilemma. The void inside us makes us feel more alien, which we try to cure by consuming more void. (This is why up until recently, psychiatrists and psychologists were called "alienists.") We believe there's something wrong with our friends and families since we don't make sense to them, but what if it is simply that we do not make sense? Rather than embracing the possibility, we seek out "like-minded" people and cut out those who are different. Different means negative; negative things must go. We've done this for a while, except we used to call it sin, and sinners were cast out.

But what of context? Negative is bad. Yet what if you are negative for a terrible disease? Then negative is good. If you are positive in a screening for cancer, then that is bad. It's subjective. Then who decides? We do. What do we base it on? Our mood. Can we be wrong? That also depends on our mood.

For me, Pamela is also an archetype of California culture, which is at once obsessed with the shallowness of youth and beauty, as well as the more existential search for self-help, wellness, and rehabilitation. Both of these polarities lead to a certain kind of alienation that I wanted to explore: the alienation and emptiness of beauty and objectification of oneself, and the alienation of continuously searching for something deeper and more authentic. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these two seemingly opposed obsessions coexist in places like Malibu. I believe, in fact, that they’re related to a singular kind of searching...
— Luke Gilford
 ( Connected  | Screenshot)

(Connected | Screenshot)

We want to be both shallow and deep, which leads us to loneliness. Our quest for ultimate wellness only makes us sicker. You have beautiful unhappy people, but unhappiness makes them feel ugly. This leads to more unhappiness. This leads to more ugliness. You have happy ugly people, but ugliness makes them unhappy. This leads to more ugliness. This leads to more unhappiness. Neither will ever be fulfilled. That is the tragedy of fulfillment. How can you fill what is boundless? When the Way (be happy with who you are) becomes ways (fix this, fix that, you're not good enough), you go nowhere fast, feeling buried by time.

New Competitiveness

In the past, we would spend our wealth on shiny rocks (gold and diamonds) and fine wine. Today we spend money on a variety of shiny things; we still love the shiny rocks and crystals, but we also love our juices and expensive cheap wine. Breathing is free, yet we pay for classes on breathing. We breathe shallow, then after class, we learn to breathe more shallow more often. We do it competitively.

Breathe, breathe, is someone breathing slower than me? Is that your game? Is someone breathing faster than me? Is that your game? I will beat you. We call compulsion, "building habits." A habit used to be something you would try to kick, now it is something you collect. No more baseball cards, let's collect habits. It's modern human programming. Let's be like computers. Computers are happy right? They have a soul right?

According to Google's DeepDream program, when computers obsess over the same things we humans do, this is what we they dream of:

When Google shared these images online, humans couldn't stop looking at it. Disgusted but strangely attracted. Creepy. Eerie. Just like us. But perhaps this is what we look like to computers. To algorithms, our chase for beauty looks like this: porn, selfies, with a side of a small lap dog.

A New Religion

There have always been the spiritualists who cared nothing for the material, and there have always been the materialists who cared nothing for the spiritual. Now they are one. We want it all. Vanity has made spirituality a shallow, consumable good. Spirituality has made vanity a religion, an obsessive disorder. Combined, everything costs money and we are obligated to worship and pay. Yet, why do those who are so "compassionate" and "loving" charge the most if they want to help us? What was once called "greed" is now "good karma." Thanks to The Secret, greed has a spiritual license.

Technology, money, and globalization haven't made things better; it has convinced us we can have it all. But now we are competitive. That is what's new, this hyper-competitiveness. We didn't go beyond the surface, we are scratching it more competitively. Wanting to do it better than the other guy. Perhaps we compete with ourselves, to beat our previous score. And somehow we think that is better, when that only makes us our worst critics.

Narcissism and sadness is the new religion. We gave testimonials. We still give testimonials. And we compete, on who had the saddest life. We own that sad life. The biggest martyr. What is our cause? Ourselves.

[What has also been topical is self-improvement and body image disorder, misogyny, and sex trafficking.]

Who can have the most things, be the youngest, the most beautiful, the most neurotic, the most Zen, the most healthy, the most ambitious, the most achievements, the most minimal, the most productive, the most relaxed, the happiest, the saddest, the most trauma, the most inspirational, the most spiritual? We can quantify it, which is to say, we've figured out a way to score what was once impossible to score. What we care about now is winning. And to beat the world, we must disconnect from it.

Through Art We See

 I wonder what she is thinking as she gazes upon herself in the mirror? I wonder what Cupid is thinking as he is holding the mirror? ( "The Rokeby Venus"  | Diego Velázquez) 

I wonder what she is thinking as she gazes upon herself in the mirror? I wonder what Cupid is thinking as he is holding the mirror? ("The Rokeby Venus" | Diego Velázquez) 

Rather than prayers for world peace or the health of our family, this is our new conversation with God: "Why can’t I ever be perfect? Why can't I ever find peace? If I wasn't so dirty, I would shine so bright. I want to be pretty. I want to be rich, like him. I want to be lovely, like her. I want to be beautiful. Why can’t I ever be happy? Why can't I ever have it all? No one understands me. I'm all alone. I hate this feeling. How far have I come?"

Indeed. How far have we come?

Connected

A short-film by Luke Gilford:

Pamela Anderson is the sex symbol of my generation. Even before adolescence, I remember posters of her plastered on bedroom walls.
— Luke Gilford

Directed and story by Luke Gilford
Written by David Largman Murray
Starring 90s sex icon, Pamela Anderson
Self-Help Guru voiced by 60s and 70s sex icon, 80s fitness and self-improvement, Jane Fonda

Excerpts From the Director's Statement:

What is the evolution of a performer who has made her mark on the world with her body, something that inevitably depreciates with age? I explained that I wanted to ask these questions in the film, and to bring forth a vulnerable performance that blurs the lines between reality and fiction.

[...]

Working with Pamela has been an incredible journey. She truly understands the process and precariousness of self-invention and reinvention. After all, she began her life as a flat-chested brunette from Canada and has evolved into a blond bombshell actress and animal rights activist—epitomizing the ideals of the ‘California Dream.’
— Luke Gilford

The reason we only touch the surface is because if we went any deeper, we would see how creepy this all is. We would see our solution is the problem. Our Way is the obstacle.

Everyone being the same is comfortable but sometimes comfortable is creepy. Dress the same, look the same, think the same—it makes those in that in-group comfortable but that type of sameness is also the theme of most horror movies and dystopian novels. Your paradise might be another person's nightmare. Your paradise may be your own nightmare.

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