Achievement, Self-Hatred, and Goals

Yesterday I saw a lot of people linking over to this comic at the The Oatmeal. It encompasses something that I think is extremely common and also somewhat worrisome, so I’d suggest that you read it UNLESS you feel you might be triggered by fatphobia. Cause there’s a major trigger warning on this baby. If you can’t get through the whole thing, I understand, but just give yourself a little taste of what it’s like.

So after I read this comic yesterday (and I forced myself through the whole thing, thinking there must be some redeeming feature to it, as people I respected had linked to it), I found myself somewhat flabbergasted that people were holding this up as funny and true and something they identified with. This comic signifies to me about 99% of the reason that everyone I know is miserable and hates themselves. The author openly admits that his behaviors are atrociously damaging, but people were happily linking to it and saying “oh yeah that’s me!” I find myself somewhat perplexed, and so without further ado I’m going to break down exactly what I find wrong with this fat-shaming, self-hating, disturbingly-reminiscent-of-bulimia comic.

 

So let’s start with The Blerch. The Blerch signifies to me everything that is wrong with American approaches to mental and physical health. The author describes the Blerch as the thing that asks him to slow down or to stop. He calls it blerching when he is sedentary with “no good reason to be sedentary”. He is constantly trying to escape The Blerch, and makes it out to be something terrible or horrible that will ruin his life if he allows it to catch him.

There are a lot of problems with this. First, it seems to pain laziness as the greatest evil in the world. This is weird to me, as laziness really is not that harmful of an action. No, it’s not great, but all of us need a little bit of relaxation in our lives and that’s ok. It’s part of recharging our batteries, staying sane, taking care of ourselves. Giving yourself rest is not a sin. It is in fact necessary, good, and worth it.

Second, The Blerch is predicated on the idea that you need an excuse to be sedentary. Let that sink in: if you want to sit down or lie down, you need to earn it. The only time you get to stop accomplishing things, or eat, or have fun, or relax is if you’ve earned it somehow. That’s bullshit. These are all basic human rights and no one should feel as if they can’t do them unless they’ve run 20 miles. I often hear friends and family members speaking disparagingly about themselves for taking the afternoon off or for sleeping in, because for some reason this equates to be lazy and worthless and pointless. This comic just reinforces that over and over again. You need to have earned the right to sit on the couch, otherwise you are The Blerch. The examples the author gives of the “bad things” The Blerch asks him to do are such horrendous activities as sleeping in or reading bad book reviews. Sleeping in is actually a wholly human impulse and a part of self-care, as is doing something silly like reading bad book reviews. We really shouldn’t be demonizing activities that allow us to take care of ourselves. We should be allowed to things we want to do simply because we want to do them sometimes.

The third thing that’s really scary about The Blerch is all the fat-shaming that it seems to represent. Apparently it’s the author’s previous fat self (who was really horrible?? I don’t know, but I guess he doesn’t want to be that person anymore), and somehow The Blerch manages to equate self-caring actions with being fat and then equate fat with lazy. Not good.

So then we come to the second page, wherein the author describes his eating habits. He says he eats to reward himself for things. Ok, this is not the healthiest thing in the world, but it’s fairly common and there’s a lot of therapy programs out there that can help you find a healthier relationship to food. However apparently in his mind, this makes him a horrible glutton. The most telling piece of this comic is to me the following: “I run to eat. I punish my body outdoors to atone for my atrocities indoors”. There’s a lot to break down here.

A.Food is not something to atone for. It is not a sin.

B. Do you notice how he equates eating with atrocities? That is fucked up beyond belief. And our society does that ALL THE TIME. Eating a lot is somehow on par with criminal behavior. Notice how he portrays himself in these panels: disgusting, grotesque, disturbing. As if there is something horribly, horrifically wrong with eating, or with eating unhealthily. Being unhealthy is not the same as committing atrocities, and equating the two is a huge part of how fucked up our relationship with food is right now.

C.It appears that in this world there are two ways to be: perfect, calorie counting robot, or self-destructive binger. This is sad. It’s also a really unhealthy way to approach food, and it’s a dichotomy that gets reinforced a lot. It also seems like it’s destroying something he actually enjoys: he says that running makes him feel alive, but he also acts as though he compulsively has to do it to work off his food. Recognizing that there are other options could make both food and running more joyful (this could apply to all sorts of behaviors that people use to cope with overeating or guilt about food).

But what disturbs me most is the end. He recognizes that it’s unhealthy and then he says he’s not going to stop. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to recognize just what is unhealthy about his behaviors. He appears to think that it’s just physically unhealthy to eat that much. Unfortunately, what he’s describing sounds an awful lot like bulimia. Obviously I can’t diagnose him over the internet, but what he’s describing is unhealthy not just for what it might do to his body, but moreso for the self-hatred, shame, guilt, and disgust he has. Even more worrisome is that many people felt that they could relate to this picture.

And now we are on page 3. Here is where we start to get into what the author views as positive things or positive feelings, and they mostly seem to center around accomplishing things. He says that cleaning the house, paying your bills, and catching up on email feels like nirvana. This seems a little weird to me. Shouldn’t bliss be more like spending time with someone you love or doing something you really enjoy? Why the obsession with accomplishing?

For some reason, getting stuff done is once again treated as the end all be all of being a good person. This is screwy, but again, part of the fabric of our society: we’re trained to believe that the best thing we can do is get stuff done, and that if we’re not getting stuff done then we’re fuck ups. We’re trained to think that we shouldn’t feel good about ourselves unless we’ve accomplished things. This is a highway to depression, and this comic is reinforcing it over and over again. The fact that sometimes you can’t clean the house or check your email doesn’t mean you’re a fuck up or you should be able to do those things: it means that hard things are hard, or that you’re tired, or that you just don’t like doing those things.

So now we move on to page 4. This is where he begins to talk about vanity, and makes it VERY clear to us that he’s not running out of vanity because he’s not like those shitty people at the gym over there who are stupid and use tanning beds. We get another heaping pile of shame for other people’s choices all over this page. Why the hell does he care if these people choose to go to a tanning bed? I don’t know, but apparently it’s a really big deal to him.

And then he goes on to say that he runs to feel good, not to look good. It’s interesting because this seems to contradict all the self-hatred that he had in the previous 3 pages. He seems to have been saying that he runs so as not to feel like a miserable waste of space, and then he says he does it because it makes him happy. Perhaps it’s both, but accomplishing for accomplishment’s sake is just as empty as looks, so maybe those of us who are highly motivated need to be careful before we look down on the gym rats.

And now we arrive at page 5, which sounds like something out of Dante, and disturbs me all to hell because it is yet another example of how in our society feeling miserable and in pain is equated with earning something, finding serenity, and being a really great person. So the first sentence describes this as the most wonderful and terrible run the author has ever had. Now I hope I don’t have to be the first to point out that suggesting wonderful and terrible should be descriptors of the same thing is a little off, and that maybe we should rethink our concept of wonderful if it includes things like giant hornets and crazy heat and dehydration.

Also the whole scenario he describes is horrifically unhealthy and kind of unintelligent: why would you go running in that kind of heat? That’s asking for something bad to happen, because it’s nearly impossible to keep yourself hydrated enough. But it’s considered something awesome because he was pushing himself through pain, he was showing what he could do. I can only ask, to what end? Why is it amazing? What is it about feeling like shit that we think inevitably leads to a great gain of some kind?

For some reason pain and good have become linked in our minds. If we did something through pain then we are good. Unfortunately that doesn’t make any sense. Because it doesn’t.  Sacrifice, particularly self-sacrifice, requires an end: you can’t just put yourself through a lot of pain and think that something great will magically appear because you sacrificed. It has to be for a reason and a purpose. You have to jump on a grenade that’s actually going to explode in front of someone else, not just jump on top of a grenade. And it seems to me that this particular page is promoting jumping on random grenades: make yourself feel miserable! You’ll get so much out of it! You’ll be a better person! Huzzah! It openly admits that there was no pleasure in this run, but it’s still holding it up as the best and most meaningful run.

Ok. Final page. In this page, we are treated to the part where the run gets better: it doesn’t matter what the purpose of life is because he is KING OF THE MOUNTAIN because it started raining and he feels better. Um…ok? I mean, it’s nice that you can just say that the purpose of life doesn’t matter because you feel very full of life. But why does that have to come at the cost of extreme bodily deprivation and pain? I have a hint for you: it doesn’t. And when you say that the reason you don’t care about thinking about the why is because the world is full of beauty and agony…well that sounds a little fucked up to me. Your agony did not earn you anything in this case. It would be really nice if we could start separating beauty from agony and realizing that sometimes great insights come from completely not painful and not shitty situations.

The final conclusion tries to be positive, because it wants to spin the whole thing into meaning that everything will be ok if you experience life. Unfortunately this doesn’t cover up all the self-hatred that was the reason for running in the first place, and it doesn’t cover up how much shame is bleeding out of this comic, and it doesn’t cover up the fact that the obsession with doing more and going further for no particular reason even if it makes you miserable gets pushed over and over. Somehow I get the message from this comic that when we’re feeling bad and shitty about ourselves, the answer isn’t to ask why, or try to do something nice for us, but rather the solution is to beat ourselves into a bloody pulp to live up to some masochistic ideal that society has painted for us. It’s screwed up, it shames people who might have any kind of illness or disorder and thus CAN’T do these things, and it glorifies pain, and suffering for no reason. It ignores what might actually create a fulfilled or positive life and eschews those things in favor of getting stuff done, regardless of what the end purpose of that stuff is. And in the end, it says that the part of us that is afraid and hungry and needs something should be stuffed away and run from so that we can get more done.

Now here is the point where I’m going to insert a caveat: I’m not really all that mad at the writer of this comic. It appears to me that the comic was written out of a really unhappy place, and that he’s in some way trying to come clean about how miserable he is. There are places that he acknowledges that he is doing things really badly and trying to trick himself into thinking he’s happy. I think that he’s a product of a society that tells people these same shitty messages over and over again. And I wish I could say something to him that would snap him out of this mindset.

But I do think it’s important to dismantle what’s wrong with this comic because he is contributing to the general milieu that suggests we always need to be moving and accomplishing. I also feel that this comic crystallizes very well many of the negative impulses in our society that people view as positive, and I see this in the positive reaction the comic is getting. So. I don’t blame him, he recognizes he’s being unhealthy, but I do want to call out how he’s playing into unhealthy stereotypes. He says that his need to run comes out of his wish to do really amazing, good things like cure cancer. This makes me incredibly sad, because it seems to me that as the writer of The Oatmeal, he’s already shown that he has some pretty amazing talents and is doing something with them, but it’s not enough for him.

I don’t like this mindset. It’s made me miserable and it’s made people I love miserable. Accomplishment is not everything, nor does it determine your worth as a human being. And this shaming comic implies over and over again that it does. I wish people would stop sharing it.

4 thoughts on “Achievement, Self-Hatred, and Goals

  1. James Jaffe says:

    Hi Olivia. Long time no see. I’ve been reading your posts as i notice them on facebook for the last few months because whether or not I agree, you often have something interesting to say. I was a irritated by this oatmeal response though. I’ll do my best to explain what I mean, but I’m falling asleep as I type, so this probably won’t be too successful. When I read that comic it felt like a very personal story from the author and I don’t think he’s trying to tell people to think/behave a certain way. The fact that your friends identify with his story is also personal for them and I don’t think you should be offended that they share the article. Personally I identified with several aspects of his story, especially things that I certainly recognize are probably mentally unhealthy in myself. I have always sought painful/uncomfortable physical activity in my life. It gives me release somehow and makes me feel good. I really understand his last pages about how the best run ever is the worst/most uncomfortable one. That’s actually my absolute favorite part about running. To connect to another common topic on here, that is also one of my favorite aspects of dancing (the moment when you can’t move because you are in so much pain and you’re tired and its 4:00 AM and you swear you’ll never stand up, but then that really fast song comes on and you just get up and do it and you can’t feel anything anymore but you don’t care and all that exists in the whole world is the music and you dance and just float along; this is the same experience I have running) You mentioned on facebook where this was linked that you are not a runner. I wish I had not noticed that because it makes parts of your article difficult to take seriously. I honestly think that you and I are emotionally disconnected when it comes to this kind of activity. You come down on him so hard, but you never really seem to consider that he could just be describing how he feels. It feels silly saying this, but is it possible that he is describing something that you have simply never experienced. It just felt so judgy the way you discussed his experiences/feelings. I really did identify with those experiences. If I had the ability to write and draw I could have written a very similar story about myself. I acknowledge that the attitude he is discussing is unhealthy, but so does the author. The whole time I was reading your article it felt like you were telling me that my own experiences were not valid. Who could think in such way? Its crazy. Yes I know its crazy! But that has never stopped me from thinking these thoughts over the previous 10 years of my life. Its just who I am at this point for better or for worse. I know that in my own life I am less happy because I choose to measure my own value around my success whether it be with my fitness or at my job. However, this is a choice that I have been unable to unchoose. And I have and still try. Its always fascinated me because the pressure for this has never come from outside, but has always come from my self. Even now despite having a boss that puts zero real pressure on me I still sometimes have mental breakdowns over work that only a few days later seems completely inconsequential. Its silly and unhealthy, but I can’t stop. That kind of attitude has always been linked to exercise for me too. I have done some things that have been really bad for me. I’ve caused permanent damage to my body by making these kinds of choices, but I’ve never really regretted it. Because its always a rush and sometimes it feels really good. Anyway . . . that was a huge block of text. Screw it, I am not going back up and putting in paragraph markers. Way too much work. Good night. Or good morning or whatever. I hope you’re doing ok. Maybe I’ll see you again some day.

    • oj27 says:

      I can see what you’re saying and I’m sorry I made you feel invalidated.
      I hope you did notice that at the end I pointed out that I don’t feel any anger towards the person writing it, but that i think it’s indicative of a larger societal tendency that gets pushed somewhat subconsciously on a lot of people and that’s what makes me sad.
      As for whether I’ve experienced it or not, I think I can absolutely say I have. I’m not a runner, but I am a swimmer and a climber, and you do get the pain highs from both of those. I also have felt the need to measure myself by my successes, and the reason that it makes me so frustrated is because it’s cause so much pain and suffering in my own life and the lives of people around them.
      I absolutely understand how someone can feel this way. I understand that society often pushes us to feel this way. However I’m not going to condone it and I’m not going to let it go just because it’s how someone feels. He does say it’s his own personal experiences, but the way he talks about it is definitely as if the high is a positive and as if his bad habits are excused by the running. He does it in such a way that HE felt very judgmental of people who are not like him and that was my problem with the comic overall.

      So I can understand that you feel that way, and if you honestly believe it’s the right choice for you, then ok…but if you can see that you’re causing yourself damage by doing it, maybe it’s just time to take a second look.

  2. reader says:

    you might like virgie tovar

  3. maltypass says:

    I’m glad you wrote this as it summarizes so much of what I feel but couldn’t verbalise. Whenever I see the ‘thinspiration’ posts on Pinterest I can’t help but notice how bullying they often seem, especially as so many of them are about comparing yourself to quitters as though they are weak, and not just humans who drop out of training regimes for all sorts of reasons.

    I agree with your comment that this society places such high emphasis on achievement that it becomes a goal in itself, and that it’s demoralising for people who one way or another can’t meet these criteria. The results are not the only thing that matters, after all.

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