I recently read an article about a group of Swedish neuroscientists: Björn van der Hoort, Arvid Guterstam and Professor H. Henrik Ehrsson, who conducted an experiment called, “Being Barbie.” Their findings explain how our perception of our bodies determines our perception of the world. Here’s a summary of what they did:
They built a rig that allows them to substitute other body images for your own. Their experiment was based on two models—a tiny sized Barbie (or Ken) and a 16-foot tall giant sized model. You lie on a table, wear a video helmet and when you look down at “yourself," you see not your own torso and legs but these models as if they were your own body. They encourage this belief by having a stick touch your leg while another stick touches your virtual body. You see the padded stick touch the Barbie body and at the same time you feel something—another padded stick—touching your own leg. This really locks the illusion into place.
So far, this might seem merely like a nifty parlor trick—albeit one I’d love to participate in. But there’s more to it than simply fooling the eye.
What the scientists point out is that their “trick” emphasizes that your perception of the whole world is affected by the size of your body image. If you perceive your body as Barbie size then the chair across the room now seems both giant and incredibly far away. That hand that touches your leg, in that instance, appears to be that of a giant. Like Alice after she drank from the vial, you believe that you have shrunken (or grown in the case of the giant body model they built).
What you see in the room doesn’t change. Your eyes, with their stereoscopic vision and depth perception, should tell you that the room and its furniture are normal. Wouldn’t one think that our eyes would at least tell us the “truth”—that the chair is still where it was and is a normal size chair? Wouldn’t you think that our eyes would counteract this trickery? That we’d instinctively realize that the doll body was a Barbie torso and that the chair is not miles away and giant? We assume that it is our eyes that transmit to us a kind of objective visual truth—but it seems these other factors can and do influence how we interpret what we see. They can override that “objective” truth. It seems that our “vision,” or at least how we interpret it, is quite malleable, and our body image has an unexpectedly huge influence on how we see the rest of the world. One can only imagine what an anorexic or bulimic young woman sees! Maybe these women would benefit, or at least get a measure or relief, from wearing the rig and experiencing their body image in the form of little Barbies?
This experiment is evidence that our vision, our image of the world around us, is even more subjective than we might have thought it was. What we believe is our “true” version of the world around us, a vision we assume matches that of everyone else, is merely the one (among many) that accommodates and is modified by our particular body image. Who knows how many other factors might similarly affect our image of the world?
It was then a small leap from discussing this experiment with some friends to a conversation regarding our current situation in which we are continually confronted with unreal body images in magazines and ads. Surgically enhanced, photoshopped and artificially tanned bodies are nothing new. For decades, Playboy centerfolds have been a mash up of drawings and cartoons aimed at men and photographs of what are purported to be real women. The visual clues that trigger a man’s lust, along with other factors that would make a woman desirable, seemed, in these images, fairly easy to exaggerate and emphasize. With digital and other image manipulation techniques, combined with surgical modification, we now have a whole race or super people parading in front of our eyeballs. Not just in centerfolds, but on TV, newspapers, tabloids, fashion magazines and yes… in real life. I recall sitting at on outdoor café in West LA marveling at the new heightened version of the female species that paraded in front of me. Now, the poor male who has evolved over millennia to respond instinctively to such clues is continually manipulated and completely helpless. For example, one might “know” that what they are looking at is photoshopped but, as in the Swedish experiment, one’s gut responds, as it will, despite any rational cognitive dissonance.
Likewise, women who view similar types of images—for example, the surgically and digitally enhanced images of celebrities and models—are also subject to succumbing to the power of these new bodies. Maybe not necessarily as objects of lust (as some men might instinctively to the centerfolds), but as body images they might emulate and aspire to. They too believe that what they are seeing is “real,” despite intellectually knowing that a picture has been doctored or an actress, reality star or celebrity wife surgically enhanced. These visual buttons and triggers that are being pressed are deeply ingrained in us as a species—mere rational thinking is powerless as a way of discounting them. Ordinary women (and men) naturally then hold up these doctored images of an ideal humanity as something to be strived for. Despite knowing better, they believe that this look can (and should) be achieved through a mostly simple and prolonged effort. Stick to one’s exercise regimen and maintain one’s diet and then, you too will look like the folks in the magazines. Sure, some surgery wouldn’t hurt either. This, we know, is a recipe for heartbreak… or even worse, a kind of insanity—as no amount of exercise and diet will ever make a human being look like the images being dangled in front of us.
We instinctively want to believe that a merit-based world exists—that with some hard work, focus, time, effort and perseverance, you too will be rewarded with the body you see on the billboard. The same also applies to our notions of economic well-being. As a result, you have Bill O’Reilly and Newt Gingrich (among many others) implying that poor people are poor simply because they aren’t trying hard enough (note the clever segue from Barbie to politics and economics). The implication is that poor people, or anyone who isn’t successful, just aren’t applying themselves or trying hard enough. Also, that less than fabulously attractive people similarly aren’t going to the gym enough. The corollary is that Bill and Newt are as wealthy as they are because they worked hard. This, excuse me, is bullshit. Donald Trump definitely received a few handouts from his father.
Sadly, this dissonance between what is possible image wise, and what is being aimed for by many normal women, is making many of them nutso. They exercise like crazy but still don’t quite match the girl on the red carpet. What gives? Must one need eat even less or switch to a new exercise regimen?
I was told recently that fashion designers and retailers now have to alter the cut of women’s garments to accommodate the extreme diets and surgically enhanced bodies that prevail among certain classes and in specific regions of the US. This swath of enhanced and altered bods runs from southern California across the southwest to Florida and Georgia. The silicone belt, one might say. Clothes cut to fit unenhanced, naturally evolved women’s bodies don’t fit these gals anymore… or at least they tend to look weird in them because they need clothing that accommodates a disproportionately bigger top and a smaller bottom.
Spent author and evolutionary psychologist, Geoffrey Miller suggests that these new body images are short-circuiting the criteria of evaluation for mate selection that has evolved over eons. Sexual selection is the other aspect of Darwin’s theory. Darwin proposes that how and with whom we mate with is at least equally as important to our “survival” and determines the course of evolution. For example, it used to be that a woman with perky breasts probably indicated that she is under a certain age. The same could be said for indicators such as lack of wrinkles, thin waists and non-grey hair. From a Darwinian point of view, these clues point to these women as prime candidates for mates—they appear both healthy and of prime child bearing and rearing age. According to Miller, these, along with similar markers, no longer can be guaranteed to signify what they have for eons. These days our rational sense might tell us that a woman or man is of a certain age, but now quite often the visual cues don’t match—there is a weird conflict between what we see and what we “know.” Which are we to believe? Will we be like the participants in the Being Barbie experiments and the men ogling centerfolds? Will our instincts override our “knowledge?” It seems they usually do. Advertisers and fashion magazines know this, and use it to their advantage.
One might read all this as a criticism (and probably some of it is) of these increasingly ubiquitous body modifications and enhancements. Although, one could equally say that if God didn’t want us to use the tools at our disposal—be they scalpels or pixels—then he wouldn’t have invented plastic surgery or Photoshop. Like “dressing to impress,” maybe these tools are just medical and digital extensions of our natural tendencies to put our best foot forward. In which case, we’ll collectively just have to adapt to this new wrinkle (sorry for the pun).