The boy discovered http://thisiswhyyourefat.com the other day and said, ‘Hey, look what I found.”

Anyway, I’ve known about This Is Why You’re Fat for a while, and I didn’t share that link with him on purpose, because it would link into some sort of segue into a rant about fat Americans, because, after all, no Europeans are fat. Except for Germans. And his dad. (I didn’t say that. That’s what he said.)

So I told him that it was good old fashioned American ingenuity that paved the way for the deep-fried Twinkie Cheez-Whiz hot dog and he was just a wuss.
Twinkie Cheez-Whiz Hotdogs

This is technically a lie, because people have been doing questionable things to food for ages, especially in Europe. The Romans had a recipe for an ox stuffed with a pig stuffed with a goose stuffed with a chicken stuffed with something all the way down to a songbird or a wine-drenched baby mouse. I hear it’s kind of dry but I still would like the opportunity to eat a peacock.

Anyway, four pages into the site and the turbaconducken later, he asked why all the food photos looked so incredibly bad.

The truth is that most food (particularly food I make–last night’s lemon salmon zucchini rice tasted pretty good but looked like slop) doesn’t look particularly good. And home photography isn’t great, and most of the pictures you see on TIWYF are taken with the now-ubiquitous phone camera.

But the real issue is that most of the food images that we see today are designed to look pornographic; the lighting is set high, the sides built from plastic, and the accessories carefully chosen to evoke particular looks. Much of the food is fake, and even the ones that are real are given the movie star treatment–even home food bloggers stage their shots to recreate their home-made images in the shape of food pornography.

TIWYF shots are unstaged. If anything, they’re like the paparazzi shots of celebrities on the beach: unedited, makeupless, and picked to focus on the fatty bits, to show that real life is nasty.

Heart Attack Sandwich

I hesitate to say it’s more real than Mark Bittman or Martha Stewart, because it isn’t. Most people — and most fat people — don’t go around eating the McGangBang (a McChicken sandwich between a Double Cheeseburger). I’m not quite sure whether people actually ate the Jello fruit cocktails from the Gallery of Regrettable Food in the 1950s.

If this were, in fact, reality — it would lose its power to shock. TIWYF is like a car wreck on the highway: compelling, terrifying, disgusting, all-too-common, but statistically rare.

And yet it’s busy asserting its own reality. The fact that it exists makes people believe in it, the way the unstaged camera focuses in on the drooping, oil-dripping fried egg makes it authentic. There’s a perverse and pornographic lust it’s playing on, with the link between food, sex, desire, and disgust half-spelled out–this is BBW porn, lemonparty.org, wet-and-messy, the uber-pierced Suicide Girl to the blonde plastic Barbie. It makes me hungry and sick at the same time. It’s not real either.

No media really is, particularly media that attach to a different sense from the one it describes.

You know what’s real?

The things in the refrigerator right now.

Name the last five meals you ate.

Gouda cheese on Melba toast; salmon-rice leftovers rolled inside a nori wrap; oatmeal and muesli with whole milk, lemon salmon zucchini rice; an orange and an apple turnover

Sophie and Sylvie have decided that it is too much of a bitch to blog in a combined format. They’re going to make separate blogs from now on.

Sophie is at http://sophistries.wordpress.com
and
Sylvie is at http://swansdaughter.wordpress.com

They’ve got a point about the details being boring, and I admit that I didn’t keep up my end. And you know, I disappear from here for weeks at a time, because, obviously, no one actually reads this blog.

-Lisa

In one sentence, Jean Baudrillard’s idea of hyperreality is the idea of a constructed media fantasy that is more compelling than reality — that is in fact indistinguishable from reality because it poses as reality. Lily Allen’s The Fear is an update of Madonna’s Material Girl for the Noughties.

I don’t know what’s right and what’s real any more
I don’t know how I’m meant to feel any more
When do you think it will all become clear
Because I’m being taken over by the Fear….

Forget about guns and forget ammunition
Cuz I’m killing them all on my own little mission
Now I’m not a saint but I’m not a sinner
Now everything is cool as long as I’m getting thinner

Every single image in a magazine is photoshopped, sometimes up to 20 or 30 times before publication. No one’s as beautiful as in a magazine. But because photos are considered “truthful”, it’s a more effective lie.

Sex, lies, and photoshop – NY Times video

I photoshop pictures of me. It’s a little compulsive. Sometimes it’s as simple as putting a Gaussian blur on the green layer. You know a quick trick for getting a nice black and white photo? Kill every layer except for the Red layer and save. Your skin will thank you.

Hey, I’ve been busy writing my thesis.

I’ve also been setting up a guinea pig-style experiment with two of my friends from HKU. Sophie and Sylvie are undergoing a challenge to moderate their spending in real life and see whether shifting consumption to virtual worlds works.

Check their blog out at http://sophieandsylvie.wordpress.com — I’m the moderator, site admin, and contextualizer. But it’s really more about them, and they’re really sweet girls.

So please check it out.

From MSNBC:

Americans are hunkering down and saving more. For a recession-battered economy, it couldn’t be happening at a worse time.

Economists call it the “paradox of thrift.” What’s good for individuals — spending less, saving more — is bad for the economy when everyone does it.

Some experts say consumers have been so shaken by how fast their wealth has shrunk, so burned by credit card debt, that they might not resume their robust spending for years, if ever.

“People are not saving; they are building financial bomb shelters,” said Mark Stevens, who runs a management consulting firm, MSCO, in Rye Brook, N.Y.

This article pertains directly to my master’s thesis: first, choices made by the individual that benefit the individual are not the same as those that benefit the economy and vice versa. Secondly, don’t frame the question as saving — frame the question as ‘not buying shit they don’t need and don’t have the money for.’ Americans had a negative savings rate on average for several years. We paid for stuff with credit card debt and leveraging against our houses, and I would receive six calls to refinance my mortgage per day. Every day. The article quotes Cornell’s Robert Frank, who mentions that this frenzy of consumption was unsustainable. Building a fortune on rampant consumer spending, in order to spend more yourself? Just another illusionary bubble that got popped.  And illusions die hard.

Now we’re saving hard to make up for it, and because the media tells us we should be worried (just like it told us to spend spend spend — and the ads are still there) — it reinforces the perception that we are in trouble, and that everyone else is saving, and that conformity effect is a subtle nudge towards not spending — even though the gist of the information here is that you should be spending for the good of our consumer society. Shades of 2001 with buying as a civic duty.

I don’t think that is going to work this time. This Prisoner’s Dilemma is brutal, and humans are conditioned to react twice as strongly to the idea of loss as to the idea of gain.

Matthew Conrad, a financial manager at Complete Wealth Management in Orange County, Calif., says he knows of people who drive a BMW or Mercedes and eat macaroni and cheese for dinner several nights a week. That suggests some are making an awkward shift from free-spending habits and are reluctant to give them up.

Grant McCracken theorized a remarkable idea about consumption, which he called the Diderot effect. The story goes that Diderot had a cozy little study, somewhat ramshackle but pleasing, and then he received a gift of a marvelous dressing gown from a dear friend. This dressing gown, of red velvet, made the rest of his study look shabby in comparison, so Diderot began to replace his study piece by piece until he had a fantastic room that matched the gown. And then he wrote about it.

The Diderot unity is a masterpiece of psychological connection: it asks that objects which are invested with similar qualities and meanings become grouped together and associated with each other, even if there is no actual linkage between them. For example, the BMW has more in common with the Rolex and the Bang & Olufsen coffeemaker than with Kraft Dinner; it implies that someone with a BMW should not be having to eat mac and cheese.

The Diderot effect is when the consumer decides that they need to obey the need for psychological consistency and commitment: when they choose to replace their existing goods with ones that match their lifestyle — or alternatively, reject new goods because they do not fit the existing Diderot unity. If you go down to the local farmer’s market and look for the people buying organic produce, you are going to find more Priuses than Hummers.

Diderot Unity Exhibit A: If I had a million dollars

But we would eat Kraft Dinner. Of course we would, we’d just eat more. And buy really expensive ketchups with it. That’s right, all the fanciest Dijon ketchups! Mmm. Mmm-hmm.

Diderot Unity Exhibit B: Stuff White People Like.

Vance Packard (no relation to Packard Motor Co.) wrote a book called Hidden Persuaders in 1957. It was deeply critical of market research and advertising and marketing, and topped the NY Times Best Sellers list. Reading his book (and the sequels The Status Seekers and  The Waste Makers)  is heartbreaking, because what it shows is that we’ve come so far, and yet we haven’t learned a thing. Women in 1956 bought 80% of consumer goods for the household, but marketers still aim ads towards men. A bigger car makes people feel safer, and people are ashamed to drive a car beyond three years old. Marketing put Eisenhower in power as the big daddy of the US, and fought the brand war between Republicans and Democrats with Nixon and Agnew. And advertisers aim their marketing to children on a reprehensible scale.

Packard identifies the usage of psychology in advertising, and catalogues the ways in which advertising markets things people do not need by manipulating desire. There are three things of particular note.

1.People don’t say they want what they really want. You can’t trust people to say ‘I want a smaller, more fuel-efficient car’ and then actually buy the damn thing.

2. Americans are peculiar because they automatically assume that bigger = better. They are also unable to stop working, and even during leisure time they must feel as if they are doing something. Hobbies and tours are big business. (This is particularly true, looking at the rise of virtual business in There, Second Life, WoW etc. The biggest dream of many people in virtual worlds is making a living from playing a game.)

3. People are irrational. Ridiculously, stupidly, easily manipulated irrational. But irrationality, Packard concludes, is luxury, and it makes people feel better that they can afford to  make irrational choices. He’s just suspicious of the amount of manipulation that goes on to influence people to make these choices.

Critiques of Packard basically state that it’s not that easy to manipulate people, and sometimes advertising doesn’t work, and our understanding of psychological buying is not perfect.

Sometimes advertising doesn’t work for particular products. But the world we live in is mad for buying and planned obsolescence, its economy is dependent on buying more and more, and that’s the world advertising and marketing helped make. Some dude got trampled to death at a Walmart during the Christmas rush by a mob that just wanted to buy a $388 flatscreen TV. This is a metaphor for all of us: we’re the security temp and the mob and the store and the Black Friday sale.

Why Not Start the Weekend on Wednesday?

We are twice as productive as our parents. We don’t have to be twice as rich, twice as consumptive, and twice as dangerous. Why not work half as much and stay the same?

Economists worry that slowing consumption harms the economy. It doesn’t have to.

If this were a gradual process, mass unemployment would not result. People would simply earn less, spend less, wear a few more secondhand clothes, and spend more time reading or going for walks.

And the alternative is trapping ourselves in a mad struggle to run a hedonic treadmill, buying more and more because we always want more than we can sate ourselves with, always comparing ourselves to our neighbors and always coming up short.

According to economists Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst, leisure time for women has increased by at least four hours a week since 1965. Men have done even better. That may well understate the leisure gains. A hundred years ago, many people would start working at the age of 10 or 12 and work until they died. Now it is common to spend fewer than half our years working; the rest of the time we spend studying, traveling, and in retirement.

The “work less, spend less” movement is winning. It’s a shame it hasn’t noticed.

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