Between a Magazine and a Microwave
Between a Magazine and a Microwave:
A Modern Scylla and Charybdis
As part of a future entry (“The Fact of Our Bodies”), I wrote a fair deal about the difficulty of developing a positive relationship with one’s body in this era of shame and temptation. I’ve pulled several elements out of that essay and put them here. As the poem above indicates, I believe we’re being asked to navigate a modern Scylla and Charybdis. For us, it’s not a whirlpool and a monster: It’s a magazine and a microwave.
For beauty magazines, the driving force—what allows the beauty magazines to remain profitable—isn’t simply portraying beauty. Beauty magazines rely on showing versions of beauty so extreme and unobtainable that not even the magazine’s own models can’t achieve them. Photoshopping of already anorexic women portrays a vision of beauty so far from human that they’re literally impossible to reach.
This impossibility accomplishes the economic purpose of the magazine: Convincing readers that they are not beautiful. That they must buy something—the right makeup, the right diet, the right workout, the right clothing—or they will never be good enough. But it’s not about letting people reach that standard of beauty. The entire business model is reliant on continual consumption—and while you can only sell worthiness once, you can sell unworthiness forever.
In a capitalist system where profitability is the core morality—where, thanks to shareholder interests, it is not only an accepted motive but a legally enforced one—other ethics are often left by the wayside. So beauty magazines sell unworthiness, diet fads sell magic fixes, and cosmetic surgery sells plasticized, partially numbed bodies.
But this is just the Scylla we’re confronting: At the same time that we’re being sold impossible beauty, every food product sells the cheapest ingredients instead of the healthiest. We have high-fat, high-preservative, high-density foods that our bodies can’t process effectively. We’re put out of touch with our actual hunger. And fast food sells us meals so affordable they seem surreal.
The Microwave Dilemma
Think about it: For one dollar, you can buy 390 calories of cheeseburger at McDonalds. For one dollar, you are purchasing the labor that ground flour and baked it into a bun; grew mustard seeds and ground them into mustard; grew tomatoes and made some of them into ketchup; grew lettuce, tomatoes, and onions; grew cucumbers and pickled them; milked a cow, cultured that milk, and made it into cheese; raised and fed a cow, killed it, ground its meat, and made it into a patty; and then shipped all those ingredients across the country where it was put together at your local McDonald’s. If we use $10/hour as a basic wage, it boils down to this: You are exchanging six minutes of your labor for everything that went into that cheeseburger.
That’s incredible, although maybe not in a good way. Whatever your views on free will, it’s hard to deny that humans, at a broad scale, behave in predictable ways. When products are more accessible and affordable, they’re purchased more often. When you put a person in a high-stress, 40-hour work week and then saturate their environment with high-carb, high-fat food options that temporarily relieve that stress, they will buy that food.
This is the miracle—and downfall—of mass production. It’s the microwave dilemma: This invention allowed us to cook a meal in six minutes when it once took sixty. The miracle is that cooking food is so easy that we don’t even have to think about what we’re eating. The problem is that cooking food is so easy that we don’t even have to think about what we’re eating.
But beauty magazines and fast food culture don’t exist in opposition: They exist in symbiosis. The stress and pressure created by beauty magazines give more incentive to self-medicate with unhealthy food and the extra weight gained by that self-medication makes it easier for beauty magazines to sell unworthiness. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s just the way the system has lined up. It’s not “evil”—but it creates a nearly impossible situation for those of us who must exist within this system.
Scylla and Charybdis
When I started writing this article, I thought that the saying about Scylla and Charybdis was just a nice way to state, “Yeah, it’s easy to get caught by these two things; it’s hard to navigate the path between them.” But as I researched Scylla and Charybdis, I made some unexpected discoveries.
As my poem above describes, Scylla was once a beautiful young woman who loved to go swimming. Glaucus (an immortal merman who was immune to death but not to aging) saw her and fell in love. When she refused him and retreated to the shore of a small island where Glaucus couldn’t follow her, Glaucus went to the enchantress Circe to buy a love potion. Circe, unexpectedly, fell in love with Glaucus. But our merman scorned her, and Circe became wild with jealousy—ultimately deciding to take it out on the unfortunate Scylla.
She poisoned the waters where Scylla bathed and Scylla became a monster. Hounds at her waist, tentacles for legs, bears with long necks that would reach up and grab passing sailors. The symbolism of this creature is powerful: half woman and half beast, pulled apart at her loins by a pack of ravenous dogs, becoming a creature of many parts with each dragging her in a different direction. There is no question in the story: Scylla has become a thing of terror even to herself.
Yet what we see in Scylla when we look casually is only the monstrosity of her existence. We often leave Circe unquestioned. It was not Scylla’s vice that made her into something unseemly: It was Circe’s jealousy, and her desire to prevent others from seeing Scylla’s true beauty.
It was much later that Scylla was slain—and exact accounts differ. In several, though, Scylla’s monstrous body is burnt and she is brought back to life as a beautiful human woman once again. How do we slay the beast? How do we save the woman?
And less is known about Charybdis, but this much is clear: She was once a woman, but was transformed into a creature whose face was all mouth.
She gulped down the sea and belched it back up again over and over, causing the tides and creating a powerful whirlpool that could capture Greek ships and swallow them whole.
It’s not a hard stretch to say that this myth is about our relationships with our bodies: How we see ourselves, what we consume and what consumes us, how we are transformed by the jealousy of others, and the monsters that the Gods have turned us into. But who are our modern Gods? How can we navigate the world they’ve created? And how, when we find that the Gods are cruel and foolish, do we rebel against their transformations? How do we create a world where Scylla and Charybdis are freed from their torments and life becomes a gentler sea to sail on?