Monday, December 31, 2018

Lessons from 2018

Today is New Year's Eve and if you're anybody who's anybody, you probably have some resolutions!

As always, this is not a new idea.  The ancient Babylonians rang in the New Year by promising to day off debts and return borrowed objects; the Romans made promises to the god Janus.  (January is named for the god Janus, who is the god of beginnings, endings, gates, passageways, doorways, transitions, time, and duality.)

More than half of Americans make resolutions, but four out of five fail.  Most resolutions are about improving oneself, with the most common ones involving reducing alcohol intake, losing weight or eating healthier, and saving money.

 This .gif never gets old!

Now, I've already made a lot of posts about things like losing weight and so forth.  So today, for all you assholes who simply want to be "better," I offer my lessons from thirty years of life.  In the last year especially I have up-ended my life, and while I have done such things as losing 40 pounds and paying off all of my credit card debt, the thing I am most proud of is the person I've become.  It isn't a secret.  It's simply a commitment to basic principles of being Not a Dick and today, I'm happy to make those principles publicly available.

The only pre-requisite is holding yourself accountable for your actions.

Ultimately, we all grow the longer we've been alive.  I like to think that's because we're well-traveled.  Even if you have never left your hometown (or couch!) you are moving forward... literally.  See, the average distance from the sun to the Earth is 93.2 million miles. Multiplying by 2 Pi gives 585.6 million miles for the circumference of the Earth's orbit. Dividing this by 365.25 days/year gives 1.603 million miles per day.  That's how far you've come.

Why not act like it?

I'm thirty years old and as of today (December 31, 2018), I've been alive 11,173 days.  So, I've traveled 17.9 trillion miles.  Not including that time I went to England.

There's a few simple principles I live by, but none have been as informative as the Four Agreements.  You might have heard of them.  I didn't come up with them; that honor goes to Don Miguel Ruiz, a neospiritual shaman who wrote a best-selling book by the same title in 1997.  Inspired by Toltec culture, his book was at the top of the New York Times' bestselling list for a solid ten years.  His son later added a fifth agreement: "BE SKEPTICAL, BUT LEARN TO LISTEN."

Funnily enough, my version already included a fifth agreement.  Here are the Five Agreements as they are written and as they hang in my kitchen.  I have italicized anything I added to Ruiz's original statements, which are themselves paraphrased.  (Look up the Ruiz's book if you want to see them in their original, un-butchered form.)

#1: Be impeccable with your word. 
Speak with integrity, say only what you mean (and are willing to stand by), and avoid speaking against yourself or using your words to do harm to others.

#2:  Don’t take anything personally.

Nothing others do is because of you; what others say and do is a projection of their own reality and perception.  Even if you disagree with or are angry at someone, you can still treat them with respect.

#3: Don’t make assumptions.

Find the courage to ask questions and express what you really want.  Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama.  Take time to gather your thoughts to communicate clearly.

#4: Always do your best.

Your best is going to change from moment to moment, and day to day. It will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. You are allowed to have bad days.

Under any and all circumstances, simply do your best, and don’t be too hard on yourself come nightfall.

Avoid self-judgement and self-abuse. Transform regret into action and make all criticism constructive in nature.

#5: Support and encourage others.

Ask for help when you need it.

Build others up; don’t break others down. Do not let others break you down; do not become a martyr or fetishize victimhood. Do what you can to be the change you want to see the world.

Pick your battles and be open to changing your actions when new information becomes available to you. Lose gracefully, win humbly, and live life as role model to others who watch you.


I do not consider myself an especially "spiritual" person.  I adopted the "Agreements" based on a plaque hanging on my friend's wall.  (I Googled Ruiz before I made this blog post, crossing my fingers, hoping he wouldn't turn out to be a pedophile, cult leader, and/or MLM peddler.  He isn't!)

But these agreements can truly transform the way you interact with the world, if you let it.

Some other general good advice I have for you, this coming new year:
  • Be who you needed.
  • Consider Laurence C. Jones, a black educator in the Jim Crow era, who famously said, "No man can force me to stoop so low as to hate him."  This wasn't mere talk.  Laurence was nearly killed by a lynch mob and not only politely talked his way out of being lynched, but got the lunch mob to pass around a hat and donate money to fund his school for young black men.  
  • Badasses don't have to prove their are badasses.
  • Finding points of agreement are the best manner of de-escalation.
In case you think I'm full of it, I should probably mention that what prompted this post is that I went viral last week.  One of my Bucket List items was to go viral so I was delighted, even though the backlash was a little bit shocking.  I went viral for the reason most people do: their weird look or hobby garners attention from people after it triggers some emotion.  Fear, disgust, excitement, arousal, take your pick.  My weird hobby was, what else, pet play.


Having won the title of LA Pup in November, I went on a TV spot to talk about the subculture of human pups (and humans pets).  The TV spot was mostly fair, but it was, like all TV spots, heavily edited and very much sensationalized.  And the viewer comments were... less than understanding.

I spent the last week responding to the negative backlash and it reminded me of a college essay I wrote about trolling.  (Ironically, having a lot of mean humans be mean to me really reinforced my belief that dogs are what we should all be emulating.  Dogs are enthusiastic, friendly, kind, fun, and non-judgemental.  And humans... well, um, humans could learn a lot from dogs.)


If I had to summarize trolling in a single sentence, I would say it is the ability to evoke an emotion reaction from someone.  It's easy.  You attack deeply held personal beliefs and people flip their shit.  They get angry, defensive, and upset.  The trick to trolling is that trolls are generally psychopaths; they lack empathy and have no emotional investment in triggering others.

So how do you counter trolls?

Simple.  Follow the above agreements!

Don't let them get to you.  Be kind.  Be understanding.  Treat them with the sincerity and respect afforded to them as a human being.

 Step 1: You can't upset me.

 Step 2: I like you, or at least your potential,
and you can't change that.

Take their sarcasm, their hatred, their cruelty, and compress it.  Because when you take organic material and compress it for long and hard enough, it becomes diamonds.

 Not all analogies are perfect okay?

Punching Nazis may feel great, but no one has ever changed their mind after being punched in the face.  And I've talked about this before.  The truth is, open, emotionally sincere dialogue changes minds and wins hearts.  Anger is validating, and easier than sympathy... but it just doesn't work.  And me?  I'm all about results, baby.  I changed myself and now I am ready to change the world.

Live your life for yourself as if it's your only time around.  But life your live for others as if you believe in reincarnation.

And when life knocks you down, 
never stop getting up.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Magnets: No, But Seriously, How DO They Work?

In 2010 we saw a collision of two forces that, together, generated a series of memes that are referenced even to this day.

Those two forces were the Insane Clown Posse, and Troll Science.

For those who have no idea what I'm talking about, let me give some history.  The Insane Clown Posse is not so much a "posse" as a "duo."  It includes two hip-hop artists named Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope.  (Both of whom are legally named Joseph.)  In 2010 they came out with a song called "Miracles" that is about the wonder of the world around us.  Unfortunately, because the two Josephs aren't especially educated, their list of wonders included " everything chilling underwater... hot lava, snow, rain and fog, long neck giraffes," and an anecdote about feeding a pelican a fish and nearly having their cell phones stolen by the pelican.

Perhaps the most quotable part of an otherwise unremarkable and mediocre song was the question "Fuckin' magnets: how do they work?"  People began quoting this, mocking the child-like innocence of such a basic question.

Sometime in 2010, someone on 4chan came up with an idea for "troll physics" or "troll science," which involved coming up with poorly-drawn schematics for impossible inventions.  Troll science relied heavily on magnets, probably because magnets are not well understood.

And here's where the Insane Clown Posse got it right.  No one really gets magnets.  Everyone laughed at ICP for asking how magnets work, but let me challenge you, reader.  Right now, without cheating, without looking it up... do you know how magnets work, or even what a magnet is?

Today's post is all about explaining how magnets work.

Not like this.

A magnet is any object that has a magnetic field, and a magnetic field is the interaction of magnetic items and electrical currents. Magnetism, like electricity, is the result of a field of polarized particles, and magnetic attractions and repulsions are a result of electron interactions on an atomic level.  Magnets attract each other because they exchange both electrons (charged particles) and photons, or the particles that make up light. 

Both electrical fields and magnetic fields involve the sharing of charged particles between molecules.  This is why you often see "electromagnetism" smashed into a single fundamental principle; together, magnetic fields and electric fields comprise electromagnetism, which, you might remember from physics class, is one of the four fundamental forces of nature, along with 1) hot lava, 2) snow, rain, and fog, and 3) long-necked giraffes.

No, seriously, it's electromagnetism, strong nuclear forces, weak nuclear forces, and gravity.  There also might be a mysterious Fifth Force.  Fifth Force could easily be an indie band, an action movie franchise, or a questionably racist social group.  But currently it refers to theoretical interactions involving our favorite up-and-coming subatomic particle, the boson.  In defense of the Insane Clown Posse, "boson" doesn't rhyme with as many things as "magnets."  (Then again, they opted to use the word "giraffe."  And while "giraffe" rhymes with such words as "carafe" and "lithograph," I question whether the ICP would know those particular words.)

Back to magnets!  When you think of magnets, you probably imagine a permanent magnet, which is any magnetized item that creates its own magnetic field.  There are plenty of metals that are ferromagetic (meaning that they can be magnetized and that magnets affect them): iron, obviously, but also nickel and cobolt.

Actually, everything is magnetic.  There are four types of magnetism, shown in the chart above.  When we say "magnetic" we're usually talking about ferromagnets but all substances are magnetic.  After all, magnetism simply describes the interactions of charged particles, and all molecules have charged particles within them.  But iron, cobolt, and nickel have the most interesting and dramatic effects and so when a person says "magnet" you probably think of something that interacts with these metals in particular.  After all, we can't see magnetic fields.  We can only observe the effects of ferromagnets, or the colors of a periodic chart we found in a Google search while writing a blog post.

(If you, like me, looked at the chart and immediately noticed that chromium is special, and wondered what "antiferromagetic" is, the answer is simple.  Except, like magnets, no, it's not.  Looking at the above chart, I thought perhaps chromium was something that demagnetized magnets, in the way a magnet can ruin your credit card.  But it turns out that being antiferromagnetic is a ridiculously simple term to describe a ridiculously complex atomic state in which the spin of the electrons of the chromium molecule aligns in a flip-flopping patterns with other neighboring electrons.  So it's just another type of magnetism. Any item with unpaired electrons is a magnet... the question we humans are concerned with is, can we stick it to the fridge?)

Long before humans knew what fridges or electrons were, or could even conceive of them, we knew about magnets.  It should come as little surprise to you that the ancient Greeks are one of the earliest civilizations to describe and wonder about magnets.  Naturally occurring magnets found in the ground were called "Magnesian stones."  Magnesian stones (magnētis lithos) were also called "lodestones."  Lodestones are clumps of the mineral magnetite, which is one of many types of oxidized iron ores.  Magnets were named after the mineral, not the other way around; the Greeks noted that lodestones interacted with iron and could be used to propel and attract small bits.  Unfortunately they also sort of confused it with static electricity.  Confusing magnetism with static electricity is an understandable mistake, considering the whole "electromagnetism" thing.  Thales of Miletus, one of the Seven Sages of Greece and first philosophers, wrote about magnets during 600 BC, and and in the same writings noted that when he rubbed fur on amber, he could attract specks of dust and feathers.  Thales sounds like he would either have been very, very interesting, or very, very boring.

The Insane Clown Posse and the Greeks weren't the only civilizations to be enamored with magnets, of course.  The Han dynasty in China (300 - 200 BC) used lodestones for compasses; small pieces of iron laid in water over loadstones would always point toward Earth's magnetic north.  European and Arabic culture caught on about a thousand years later, using compasses to sail their ships.  And magnets weren't just used to entertain bored philosophers or navigate trade routes; the Indian surgeon, Sushruta, (500 BC) used magnets in surgery to remove small bits of metal from his patients.

Even if we humans weren't using magnets to guide our ships, magnetism plays a critical role in our lives.  The Earth is surrounded by a couple of invisible rings called the Van Allen radiation belts.  These belts are filled with charged particles that came from solar winds and cosmic rays, and were caught in our magnetosphere.  By trapping the electrons from solar wind, the Earth's magnetic field deflects those energetic particles and protects the atmosphere from destruction.  Without a magnetic field, charged particles would peel away the ozone layer that protects the Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation, not unlike a hair band from the eighties spraying aerosols all over the place.  In fact, we think that's exactly what happened to Mars: eighties hair bands.

Moral?  Avoid Radical Styles

No, wait.  It was the solar wind thing.  The dissipation of Mars's magnetic field allowed charged ions from solar wind ripped electrons away from carbon dioxide, causing its atmosphere to rot away to almost nothing.  Mars does not have a global magnetic field anymore, and solar winds interact directly with what's left of its atmosphere.  Scientists think Mars used to have a magnetic field, just like Earth.  But when Mars cooled down and its inner dynamo slowed, that magnetic field disappeared.  (Side note: magnetism is pretty fragile.  You can demagnetize a magnet by heating it up, cooling it down, or hammering it really hard.  However, electromagnetic forces are not the weakest of the fundamental forces.  That dubious honor goes to gravity, which should really scare you, particularly if you live in one of those upside-down countries like Australia.)  

It's not just humans and the Insane Clown Posse who rely on magnets.  Some migratory birds and insects, in particular bees, use the Earth's magnetic field to navigate.  I hope you clicked on that last link because it also talks about how sleep-deprived bees dance "weirder."  Perhaps to Insane Clown Posse.  Who knows?

How do bees and pigeons do it?  Well, using the boldest and most dramatic of the naturally occurring magnets: iron, of course.  Bees have iron granules in their abdomens, and pigeons are thought to have iron granules in their beaks.  Not just any iron, either, but magnetite, that iron oxide mineral that lodestones are made of.  Scientists tested their theory by strapping magnets to pigeons.  Let me tell you, reader, if that were the sort of experiment my lab had been doing, I never would have left science.

Fortunately for you, I still have sufficient scientific curiosity to explain to anyone interested (lookin' at you, Shaggy 2 Dope!) what magnets are.  We now know they are any object with unpaired electrons that generates an electromagnetic field that interact with electrons and other magnetized objects.  It's usually a hunk of iron mineral but it can also be a pigeon's beak or a goddamn star.  (If you, like me, are the kind of person who is scared by black holes, do yourself a favor and don't look up magnetars, which are incredibly dense, terrifying "dead" neutron stars.  Don't let the cutesy Pokémon name fool you.)

Ultimately, the basis for all science is curiosity.  And instead of laughing at people for being curious, we should take pause and ask if we can learn something from innocent questions such as "how do magnets work?" or "what happens when I strap a magnet to my pigeon?"  You could argue that the only difference between the Insane Clown Posse and the amber-and-fur-rubbing philosopher Thales was that they were separated by thousands of years.  Perhaps in a few thousand more years, Violent J will be considered one of our great sages and philosophers of our time for daring to ask questions.

...or perhaps not.

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Sitcom Kid Formula

I thought I'd stumbled onto something big.

Andrew has been pushing me into writing for TV for a long time, but the task always felt daunting to me.  How could I possibly be expected to come up with an incredible premise and then flesh out a fully-realized script?


Andrew had already rejected several of my TV ideas, by the way.  One was to gather ten flat-earthers and offer a million dollars to the first one to get to the edge of the world.  The title would be "Competitive Edge."

Another was a show that was a cross between The Bachelorette and Maury, called "Baby Daddy," where a heavily pregnant lady would live with all of her potential baby daddies and then try to determine which one is indeed the Baby Daddy.  The sequel of the show would feature a fake pregnancy.  Oh, the glorious reality TV drama of it!

Also, Dog: The Ghost Hunter.  Basically you'd get Dog the Bounty Hunter on one of those paranormal shows and have him "talk to ghosts" and the ghosts would be voiced by various celebrities.  Imagine Toby Maguire faking a Victorian-era accent and having a conversation with Dog about the treasure buried in the walls of the castle... now THAT is good TV, in my opinion.

Anywho.  I stumbled upon the Holy Grail of TV sitcom formulas and thought, my God, I've uncovered the secret to success!

Turns out I'm not the first one to notice it.  Searching Google, I found posts from 4 or 5 years ago noting the same pattern.  But I'd like to talk about it anyway.

The formula is this:

In a family sitcom, the best formula for maximum hijinks and audience relatability is to have three kids, and the kids are, in order, dumb, smart, and weird.

Expanding on this:

Child One: Typically dumb, but often socially adept.  Often a jock or interested in sports, but struggles in school.  The least well-developed character with the least interesting plots.  A basic sort of character.  Most likely to be male if they're a jock, but female if they're a social airhead.

Child Two: A perfectionist and intellectual who does well in school but often struggles with moral dilemmas.  The most likely to have a "Very Special Episode."  A voice of reason who is often an annoyance to other characters.  Most likely to be female.

Child Three: A wild card.  Either super cute, weird, or a mixture of the two.  Most likely to have eccentric, exaggerated traits.  Likely to have a light-hearted, amusingly antagonist relationship with an adult in the show (such as Baby Sinclair and "Not-the-Mama" Earl, or Stewie and Louis, or Wesley and Mr. Belvedere).  Clearly expected to be an audience favorite.  Immune from most bad experiences, and overly precocious.  More likely to be male than female.

I think I noticed it somewhere between Modern Family and Malcolm in the Middle.  Both have the high-strung mom and the dopey dad, and the three main kids all follow the formula.  (Note that Malcolm has a fourth child that is not part of the nuclear household.)   The first kid in Modern Family, Haley, is a fashion-obsessed ditz, while in Malcolm, the first kid, Reese, is a slack-off bully who is always imminently about to flunk out of school.  The middle child, Alex and Malcolm, respectively, are not just smart compared to their older sibling, but geniuses in school, "black sheep" in the family because of their remarkable intelligence that supercedes even the parents.  And then you have the adorable, precocious baby of the family, Luke or Dewey, the goofball who gets the weirdest plots and wackiest stories.

If it were just a case of these two, I would argue that Modern Family clearly ripped off Malcolm.

Modern Family is incredibly formulaic, and Malcolm ran from 2000-2006, with Modern Family swooping in around 2009.  Underappreciated in its time, Malcolm was an irreverent sitcom with enough feel-good moments to justify its primetime existence.  Modern Family snatched up a lot of the same tropes and filled a hole, being just formulaic enough to be familiar and just edgy enough to remain relevant.

But it's not just these two.

Look at some older sitcoms. Mr. Belvedere began in 1985 and The Simpsons began in 1989, and both feature an older slacker-type (Kevin Owens and Bart), a middle perfectionist nerd (Heather Owens and Lisa), and a precocious baby with adorable B-plots (Wesley and Maggie).  Fresh Prince (1990) features Hilary (a popular, ditzy social butterfly), Carlton (an uptight, straight-A nerd), and Ashley (the adorable third child who eggs on Will).

It's not just humans.  In Dinosaurs, Robbie is a popular jock; Charlene is a high-strung perfectionist and golden student; Baby Sinclair is a bafflingly weird third wheel.

Idea for a show: Dinosaurs reboot.
We're overdue for one.  That show was a treasure.

Family Guy, a blatant Simpsons rip-off, also stuck to the formula: the oldest child, Chris, is a slacker, the middle child, Meg, is the reviled voice of reason, and the third child, Stewie, is a bizarre, eccentric egomaniac.

And if you think Simpsons doesn't fit the formula because Maggie isn't "weird" enough, think again.

Family Matters gave us Edward (the popular jock and slacker), Laura (the pretty perfectionist and straight-A student), and Judy, who, weirdly, disappeared without explanation from the series in season 4 or 5.  However, since the third "weird" character is apparently a necessary inclusion, we got a lot more screentime with Urkel.

Happy Days experienced a similar cast turn-over.  The original family had three child characters: Chuck, Richie, and Joanie.  Chuck went off to college and wasn't seen from again or even mentioned after season 2, but was replaced by Fonzie, keeping the group as balanced as a man flying over a shark on water-skis.


Hell, even the The Brady Bunch (1969) has the rule of three.  Marsha is the popular, pretty one Jan is plainer but smarter; Cindy is cute and has adorable B-plot adventures.

When I pointed it out to a friend, he immediately named two sitcoms and asked if they fit the rule.

The first was Home Improvement, a sitcom I'd completely forgotten about.  We checked Wikipedia and found this:  "Brad... is the oldest, most athletic and strongest of the three boys.  Randy... is middle child, ultimately the smartest of the three boys... [and] Mark... is the youngest and most sensitive of the three boys... [who] during adolescence began to adopt a more "goth" look and an anti-establishment kind of attitude."

Okay, so Home Improvement fit to a T.

The second suggested sitcom was a more recent one: Black-ish.

Again, from Wikipedia: "Yara... is the attractive, popular, stylish, and socially active member of the Johnson family.  Andrew "Junior" is... a so-called "nerd" who is confused by the world around him. Junior typically lacks teenage savvy and is often viewed disdainfully by his more shallow and self-aggrandizing father and siblings."  And the third child?  Twins.

By the way, the fake sitcom Horsin' Around features three orphans who are dumb (Olivia), smart (Ethan), and weirdly precocious (Sarah-Lynn).  (Side note: Sarah-Lynn has a catchphrase.  The third child is the most likely to have a catchphrase, another way to convince the audience that the youngest child is the cutest and most well-loved.)

I showed my theory to another friend who immediately said their favorite show, The Middle, also follows the formula.  I'll let Wikipedia describe the family for us one more time: "The Middle features oldest son Axl, a popular but lazy teenager, does well in sports but not in academics; daughter Sue is an enthusiastic young teen but chronically unsuccessful and socially awkward; and youngest son Brick is an intelligent but introverted compulsive reader with odd behavioral traits loosely hinted to derive from Asperger syndrome."

The Rule of Three wasn't always present, of course.  Leave It to Beaver (1957) had only two children.  Ditto Happy Days (1974).  As you go farther back, the less strict the rule becomes.  But more and more often, I see it cropping up.

My question once I noticed the pattern was why.  The dopey dad and the high-strung mom are easily explained; we like to laugh at those in authority, so of course the blue-collar, bread-winning dad needs to be a little inept, and the high-strung, practical mom as homemaker fits with what many of us witnessed growing up.  But why are there three kids and why do they fall into such a predictable pattern?  Why the seeming laziness on the part of the screen writers?

Ran out of coke?

I submit the following hypothesis.

The children are ordered as they are because it is the dynamic most capable of creating audience connection.

Follow me here.  First of all, giving characters familiar personalities make them instantly relatable.  And the two most common traits, the two most ubiquitous cliches of children, are the Jock and the Nerd.

Of course the Jock has to come first.  After all, the older child tends to bully the younger child.  By having the younger child be The Smart One, it puts the kids on even ground; the middle child can now outwit or get revenge on the older child.  The two are in a perfect, antagonistic relationship.  They're foils for each other.  They're complimentary.  Each child is now defined as different from the other one, and their responses to every situation are broken down into the two simplest approaches: brawn, or brain.

 Having two dichotomous main characters lends itself to almost limitless hijinks.

So why the weird third kid?  Simple.  We need a buffer.  Without the third child, audiences are going to start choosing sides in the eternal battle of Jock v. Nerd.  The oldest kid is often more popular in the show and more emotionally secure.  The second, despite being smart and usually right about how to solve problems, is often a social outcast within the family and often suffers from self-doubt.  The two are such opposites it would almost be impossible not to take a side.  But the third child is designed to be an audience favorite.  Cute, funny, and untouchable, the third child reigns as the undisputed favorite in most cases, taking on wild, absurd B-plots that offer us a break from the humdrum issues of the jock's failing grades and the nerd's inability to snag a date for homecoming.  The third child isn't just a buffer for the audience, but for the family as well.  The third child is a wild card who can align themselves with either the jock or the nerd as the plot requires, and act as either an antagonist or protagonist to either of the other kids, making the dynamic more complex and interesting.

Alas, attempts to introduce a third mouse in season 3 were not received well.

It's my opinion that we discovered the magic of the Wild Card Weirdo by accident.  Writers looked at Fonzie and they looked at Urkel and they said, "Eyyyy.  Did we do that?  ...actually, we might just be on to something, here."

The Rule of Three went from a casual trope in the '80s and '90s to de facto law by the naughts.  Even shows that don't feature children have started to employ three-character casts who follow the formula because the dynamic is so perfect. (Matt Groening, of Simpsons fame, would later apply the rule of 3 to his other works, like Futurama (featuring Fry, Leela, and Bender as the Dumb, Smart, and Weird) and Disenchantment (featuring Princess Bean, Luci, and Elfo as the Dumb, Smart, and Weird).

The thing is, I don't think the Sitcom Kid Formula is awful.  It works.  And if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?  Sitcoms are often used to explore current social issues and modern dilemmas and provide us with a sense of comfort that, within a half-hour, everything will be all right in the end.  The familiarity of the characters and stories is one of the strengths of sitcoms.  And it's not one that I think we need to change.  At the end of the day, TV writers know what speaks to the audience, and that's the dynamic of three relatively shallow personalities who bumble their way through a world of fake problems and simple solutions.

The world just isn't ready for Competitive Edge or Dog the Ghost Hunter yet.  And as long as we remember that the real world is more complex and nuanced than it is in sitcoms, there's no reason not to take comfort in the familiar formulas of primetime opiates.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Body Dysmorphia: It's Under the Skin

Let's talk about body dysmorphia.

I have previously spoken on this blog about other disorders that interest me, such as BPD (accurately and tragically displayed in the show Crazy Ex-Grilfriend).  Body dysmorphia, like bipolar disorder or autism spectrum disorders, has recently become newly popular, in terms of diagnoses, people claiming to have it, and resources and treatment options.  Body dysmorphia sits at the intersection of a number of political issues, giving it a uniquely intriguing personality.  But there's a lot of misinformation out there and so today I'd like to talk about what actually constitutes body dysmorphia and how one can address it.

The subject of body dysmorphia came up recently in a Facebook group.  Someone in the group had bemoaned their body type (overweight) and mentioned self-consciousness, to which another person replied that they, too, were overweight, and suffer from body dysmorphia.

Now, lately, over the last three months, I have seen many, many people claiming to have body dysmorphia.  In the gay community, that checks out; a lot of people are dissatisfied with their bodies and feel pressure to be taller, leaner, more muscular, more or less hairy, et cetera.  Gay culture can be viciously shallow.  But-- and this is a critical but-- and yes, I do recognize the punniness of saying "critical but" in a sentence following one about gay culture-- body dysmorphia is not the same as body dissatisfaction.

Body dysmorphia is characterized as an anxiety disorder and affects only about one in fifty people.  There are clinical criteria to being diagnosed.  It is far rarer than people realize and it's not at all the same as having low self-esteem.

That is not to say that some people who claim to have it don't have it.  But I propose that casually saying you have body dysmorphia without a clinical diagnosis is damaging because it normalizes a disorder which actually has some pretty severe behavioral effects.  This is not dissimilar to how people will exclaim "I have OCD!" because they like having their books alphabetized, without realizing the fairly extreme burden people with OCD live with.  Normalizing disorders like OCD or body dysmorphia means that we are accepting the behavior as common and acceptable, which means that, 1) we are less likely to push those suffering with the disorder toward treatment, and 2) we are less likely to be forgiving of extreme behavior that the sufferer may lack control over.

Interestingly, body dysmorphia (also called BDD, for body dysmorphia disorder) shares quite a bit in common with OCD, which is also an anxiety disorder.

Here are some of the specific traits of BDD.  It's characterized as a perceived flaw in some aspect of one's body, and ritualized behavior to fix or attenuate that flaw.  There's an important word here which I have helpfully italicized for you: perceived.  A person may or may not have any flaw.  A classic example is how a person with anorexia may perceive themselves as having excessive fat.  (The comorbidity of anorexia with BDD is about 25-40%.)

And herein lies one of the other critical features of BDD: it cannot be "fixed."  Because the "flaw" is psychological and not physical, people with untreated body dysphoria will continue to see or feel the flaw regardless of whether or not it exists.  Treatment for body dysmorphia involves therapy and possibly anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications.  It does not, however, involve surgery.  (Michael Jackson and Pete Burns are two examples of someone trying to "treat" body dysmorphia with plastic surgery, and why it doesn't work.  Most people with BDD overcorrect.  This is why anorexics are underweight and why people with skin fixations end up covered in blemishes.)

One of the reasons I find this point so important is because body dysmorphia is a term often applied to the transgender community, with people saying they need their BDD "fixed" via surgery.  Gender dysmorphia is a subset of body dysmorphia and while it's a valid thing, it is my belief that it is not a criteria for "being transgender."  If it were, this would suggest that being transgender is a generalized anxiety disorder.  (And, indeed, historically, it has been treated as a mental illness, with "gender dysmorphia" replacing "gender identity disorder" in the DSM-V in 2013.)  Another important distinction is that "gender dysmorphia" is not the same as "gender non-conformity."  Transgender people who are out and presenting as the gender they identify as (which is at odds with their biological sex) are by definition gender non-conforming.  But do they have gender dysmorphia?  Not necessarily.  Which isn't to say they are satisfied with their bodies.  They may feel self-conscious or dissatisfied with their bodies.  But they also may not engage in the ritualized fixations that people with BDD do.

Cosmetic surgery is a temporary fix, a band-aid, on a disorder with its roots in a psychological problem.  And make no mistake: I do believe gender reassignment surgery is cosmetic in nature.  This isn't to say it should not be allowed.  If a person wants bigger breasts, they can go get implants without needing to see a counselor.  So, if a person wants gender reassignment surgery, I think they should go do it.  It's their body.  Let them do what they want.  But let's not say it's "necessary."  Because surgery rarely, if ever, cures BDD.

Turning Steve into Captain America cost American taxpayers $516,000 in 1943... 
adjusted for inflation, that's $7,517,433.99 today.

It's no wonder that I've started to see people in the gay community claiming "body dysmorphia," since there's so much overlap between the gay and trans community.  And claiming body dysmorphia has a few silver linings: people flock to reassure you that you're attractive, and it lets you off the hook for actually doing anything about your appearance.  (Take the case of the overweight guy.  If he has body dysmorphia, losing weight won't make him feel any better about it.  But if he doesn't, he could just go on a diet and discover his self-consciousness disappears.) 

I'm not trying to be a gatekeeper.  However, I do think that the excessive claims of "body dysmorphia" are harmful.  Having body dysmorphia is a crippling psychological burden, not just a general lack of confidence or unhappiness with the way you look.  I, for example, have excoriation (also known as dermotillomania).  These are the fancy-pants terms for skin-picking.  And make no mistake: I spend about an hour, on average, and sometimes more, picking at my skin.  It makes me late to most social engagements.  It's an obsessive thing.  

And I don't want people to rush to me and say, "Oh, no, your skin is just fine!"  Reassurances from others are rarely helpful to those with clinical BDD.  Claiming to have body dysmorphia to garner sympathy is a lot like people who claim to be suicidal on Facebook in the hopes that someone will say "Oh, PM me, let's talk."  (I see this more and more often and have always said the same thing: if your friend claims to be suicidal, don't offer to talk to them or ask them to PM you on Facebook. Call 911.)

Over time, constantly requesting reassurance without seeking actual medical intervention (in the form of behavioral therapy or psychiatric intervention) erodes sympathy for the disorder, at the cost of those who cannot control it.
 Please don't go the way of Pete Burns, Steve!  
You're big enough!  You can stop now!

I think that precision of language is a key element to understanding disorders, and casually throwing around medical terms for hyperbolic purposes is at odds with de-stigmatizing psychological and behavioral disorders.

If you suspect you have body dysmorphia, don't just tell everyone about it.  Go and see a licensed mental health professional to get it treated.  Because if there's one thing clincal body dysmorphia and nonclinical body dissatisfaction have in common, it's that they can be addressed.  But identifying which one you suffer from is critical to addressing it properly.  Thanks to G.I. Joe, this is something we've known for years.