They say that if you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, it leaps out; but if you drop a frog into lukewarm water and then boil it, the frog will stay in the pot and die. When the change is gradual, the frog can't tell that the water is slowly draining its life.
How do you know when you're in boiling water?
I love kohlrabi. It's my favorite vegetable. My favorite way to eat my favorite vegetable is to take a knife out into the field, harvest it, peel it, slice it into six or seven chunks, and eat it plain, raw, fresh. Friends have told me they enjoy watching me eat kohlrabi. They enjoy watching me talk about kohlrabi. I love the sweetness, the crunch, the slight radishy bite contrasted with the mellow smoothness, and of course the cabbagey essence. If you could see me right now, you'd see my eyes glazing over, my mouth slightly agape, my tongue lolling around.
Now, if you knew me as a teenager, you'd know that the phrase "cabbagey essence" must be a relatively recent addition to my vocabulary — and not just because "cabbagey" isn't a word. As a child and teen, I was a connoisseur of microwave popcorn, root beer, Cheez-Its, frozen pizzas and burritos, chicken "tenders", and the kind of ice cream that comes in plastic buckets. I didn't like cabbage or brussel sprouts or kale; or for that matter most other vegetables unless they were heavily salted, sugared, and/or buttered.
What happened? I faked it till I made it. During college I made a conscious effort to improve my diet. I tried harder to eat vegetables — mostly the ones I liked, but I also made a point of periodically retrying the others. And more importantly, I cut back on processed foods, knowing it would directly benefit my health — and unaware at the time of its effect on my tastes.
Processed foods are engineered by food scientists to hone in on exactly what our brains crave most — salt, sugar, and fat — and yet, since I cut down on processed foods, the joy and pleasure I find in eating have only increased. I am more sensitive to the subtle delights of vegetables. I'm more appreciative of their slight sweetness, their astringent yet satisfying edges. My old housemates knew me on occasion to gently steam eight or ten leaves of kale and eat them in one sitting, plain; while drinking the kale-infused steaming water ("kale tea") on the side. Wonderful. On the other hand, when I eat processed, prepackaged foods (which I admittedly still do from time to time), I'm often startled by their assaulting excesses and their empty, cardboard-like blandness. Like a frog dropped into boiling water, I am alert to the sudden danger.
In the fall of 2010, I spent six weeks in rural Ecuador. There were no billboards out in the villages, and because I spoke little Spanish I didn't bother with TV or newspapers. Over that period of time I was exposed to a bare minimum of visual media. During my trip — especially toward the end — there were several moments when I found myself suddenly, unexpectedly stricken breathless by the everyday beauty of normal people: people with wrinkles, acne, sweat, disheveled hair, scars, bad teeth, freckles, moles. At the time I attributed this to the high altitude or the endorphin rush of climbing up and down a mountain every day.
Then when I came home, I had a long layover in Miami. The airport there is set up such that wherever you sit, you will face at least one TV and several large advertisements. (The toilets are the one exception, but maybe they fixed that by now.) Looking at the newscasters and the models, who were as attractive as any, I felt a strange kind of revulsion welling up in my body, every muscle tensing in unison. I found myself unconsciously grimacing and averting my eyes. Something about these people was slightly... off.
Remember that movie The Polar Express? It's the animated movie in which, through computer wizardry and advanced motion capture technology, Tom Hanks plays every single character and most of the props. Well, it creeped people out. If you saw it, it probably creeped you out too. The animation was more realistic than any CGI movie before it... and more than any CGI movie before it, it creeped people out. The facial expressions, the eyes, the hands — they were very real, but somehow not real enough.
3D modelers and animators (as well as roboticists) call this phenomenon "the uncanny valley". Basically, there's a graph correlating the realism of a character or robot to its familiarity/relatability. In general, the more realistic a character is, the more relatable it is. Popeye is more relatable than a stick figure, and Buzz Lightyear is more relatable than Popeye. But, just before the artificial becomes totally indistinguishable from a real human there is a deep dip, or valley, in the graph. When a character is nearly human, but not quite, most people find its appearance extremely unsettling, even revolting. Sometimes they can't explain why — there's just something about that face that's slightly... off. If you saw The Polar Express, you probably know what I'm talking about.
I think it plays on some deep paranoia in the human mind, the kind of paranoia that makes some schizophrenics believe that their loved ones have been replaced by doppelgängers. It's the fear of being infiltrated, the fear that someone or something sinister or alien or dangerous might gain our trust and acceptance.
But we've only discussed one direction through the valley: When we start from something non-human and try to make it look human. What about the other way? What happens when we start with real humans and make them more abstract, smoother, more plastic?
We get where we are today.
Think about it: TV, movies, and print ads generally start with the least common denominator most attractive 20% or so of the population (even for ugly characters). Then they heavily doctor those already attractive people with makeup, cosmetic surgeries, cleavage-amplifying bras, individually-tailored threads, ideal lighting and camera angles, airbrushing/photoshopping, and highly selective editing. (Heck, a lot of small-scale professional photographers do it too. My acne was photoshopped out of my high school senior picture, as part of that agency's standard operating procedure.) At the end of the process, we end up with a wholly artificial construction, expertly crafted to appeal to the brain's cheapest cravings: the salt, sugar, and fat of human beauty.
It is well-known and well-discussed that these unrealistic media images contribute to eating disorders and general low self-esteem, especially for women. What is less often considered, however, is how these images negatively affect our ability to see beauty and experience pleasure from it. Like processed foods, they are simultaneously arresting and empty, blasting away our sensitivity to the delectable subtleties of real human beauty. It is the unfortunate paradox of addiction: the more we consume, the more our appetites escalate, while real pleasure slips through our fingers. It's why, perhaps counterintuitively, internet pornography has been known to cause erectile dysfunction in men of any age (of a sort which does not respond to Viagra): the internet provides an unlimited stream of artificial sexual novelty formulated for the cheapest and quickest satisfactions; and it creates gradually escalating expectations that cannot ever be satisfied in real life. Human women just don't do the trick anymore. Just as processed foods create expectations of sweetness and saltiness and fattiness that real healthy food cannot match, media images create expectations of beauty and sexiness that no human being can match — especially not in the messy, exposing pursuit of true emotional intimacy.
Michael Pollan has used the term "edible foodlike substances" to describe processed foods. I propose the term "attractive humanlike simulacra" to describe what we see on TV and movies. We need to start seeing these images for what they are: Inhuman. Alien impostors. The daily onslaught of doctored images is like a gradual (at least century-long and counting) invasion of pod people — and the pod people are winning. We need to tune into that little voice of paranoia at the back of our minds. It's telling us the truth: The water is too hot! We should leap away, fleeing the powders and pixels and plastics and posters and pod people, regaining an appropriate level of distrust and revulsion, if not for the sake of justice then for the selfish salvation of our own hedonistic pleasure. Until we cut our intake of junk food and re-attune our tastes to the real, we may never know what succulent, mellow, cabbagey essences (excuse me while I mop up my drool... ... ... and we're back!) we could be savoring.