Let’s say that for a few days or weeks you were to hire a Hollywood makeup artist, throw on a convincing fat suit and some awful makeup and masquerade as a fatter, remarkably unattractive version of yourself. Would it change the way the world interacts with you? Would it influence the way you feel about yourself?
The answer to both questions is a solid yes, and most likely you would be shocked by the degree to which it would happen.
Over the course of my life, thanks to a combination of military service and a penchant for travel to countries with less than obsessive levels of food and water sanitation standards, I’ve managed to more or less destroy my body and have to start over from the basis of a skinny-fat weakling.
And that’s not to mention the two or three week period which I now look back on as the ugliest time of my life.
Several years ago, I was in the process of getting laser eye surgery. For the surgery, it’s necessary to discard contact lenses and wear only glasses for several weeks prior to each exam and before the surgery. I hadn’t worn glasses since sometime around the fifth grade, and even went through SOF selection with contacts. I could swim in the ocean with them, fill my eyes with sand and still keep the little buggers in.
The problem with this was that the only glasses I had were either the same ones I had worn in fifth grade or the enormous Coke bottle Navy issue frames known as Birth Control Goggles. It was a toss up. The prescription on the old ones was so out of date that it was probably illegal for me to drive with them, but the lenses on the Navy ones, after having been carried in my pocket as a backup during training, had been abraded to the point of opacity by sand.
The fifth grade glasses were huge, ugly, and for some reason slid immediately to the tip of my nose as soon as I put them on, forcing me to repeatedly do the universal gesture for “I’m a giant nerd” by pushing them back up to my eyes with my fingers every few minutes.
One day we went out on a training op on the boats. We were to rendezvous with another Navy vessel out at sea just off Catalina Island. The sea was typically rough for the transit, with the big rolling swells the Pacific Ocean is known for. Our boat would launch off a wave and punch into the base of the next one, repeatedly engulfing us in water. I had just gotten back from a trip to Central America and hadn’t yet made the adjustment from 120+ temperatures to the 70 degree air and 55 degree water off the coast of California, so I was a bit on the chilly side by the time we arrived at our rendezvous point.
The vessel we were supposed to be meeting was late, so we idled the boats, and after spending a little while playing with the forward looking infrared optics system on our boat (high quality infrared optics are capable of seeing through layers of clothing, and we were playing “spot the thong” on civilian yachts coming in and out of Avalon Bay) I sprawled out next to a gun mount and took a nap in the sun. It was a clear day, and now that I wasn’t being doused with a fresh wave every few seconds, the warm sun slowly drying out my cammies felt great. I fell partially asleep, and since the boat we were meeting was almost two hours late, spent quite a while there.
What I didn’t consider was that while my body was still cold from the soaking wet clothes, my face, stripped free from any traces of sunscreen by the blasts of saltwater, was soaking up UV rays the whole time.
The next day I had the worst sunburn on my face that I have ever had in my life. To top it off, prior to our transit on the boats the day before, I had accidentally splashed my entire face with fairly noxious engine coolant. I washed my face off as soon as I could afterward, but my skin wasn’t too happy with a bath in toxic chemicals.
Along with the horrible sunburn, my skin had reacted to the chemicals and broken out in a bizarre blistery rash. Once the burn started peeling, it was a particularly striking combination. The kind of thing that makes adults walk a wide path around you while their children point and ask questions.
Hi, I’m Ugly
It was that day that I exchanged my contacts for the fifth grade nerd goggles, left my command in Coronado and traveled about fifty miles up the coast to begin a three week combat medicine course with over a hundred people I had never met before.
Knowing that this was a temporary state allowed me to take a somewhat emotionally distant perspective and over the next three weeks I analyzed how the people around me interacted with me compared to other groups of people I had joined under different circumstances.
First, it wasn’t only the women who reacted differently, it was also the men. In fact, the differences were roughly the same across genders. If I had a question during the course, the instructor was inevitably shorter with me than with the others in my group. They would even answer the question by addressing the others in the group; avoiding direct interaction with me. People made eye contact less, maintained a greater physical distance during conversations and were quicker to discount my input on discussions. If an opinion on a matter was sought, it was seldom from me. It was as if I mattered less as a person.
A corollary I found with this is that at the various times I have wrecked my body with, for example, several weeks of dysentery in Nepal, the changes in the way people interact with you are somewhat similar. As the appearance of your body deteriorates, so does the level of consideration with which people treat you.
After a while, I didn’t even bother starting conversations with people because it just never went well.
A substantial body of research has been accumulating on the effects of physical appearance and nonverbal signals. I discussed that more in depth here, but in short people who are overweight or perceived to be less attractive make less money over the course of their lives, are divorced more often, promoted less at work, perceived as being less intelligent and lower in social status and in general report lower perceptions of happiness in life than others.
It’s one thing to read those things but like many things in life, understanding comes much more from experience than reading words. Try as hard as you want to describe to someone what an electric shock feels like, it’s not until they accidentally zap themselves plugging in the blender that they’re really going to know what you’re talking about. Words can’t completely convey the experience.
It’s the same with physical appearance. Having destroyed my body and walked around as a skinny-fat, weak version of myself is another thing and subject for a whole other article, but whether the change is from body composition or facial appearance, it’s an eye opening experience. It’s unlikely that you’re going to don coke bottles and do something to give your face the appearance of leprosy, so you’ll have to trust me that it teaches you something that you really wouldn’t understand otherwise.
Depending on your appearance, the world around you, and your ability to navigate it, changes substantially.
Getting Away With Terrorism
About a year prior to the sunburn-chemical reaction-nerd glasses experience, I left Coronado for a short-notice deployment to East Africa. This required that I travel across the US via commercial airlines carrying my assault rifle and pistol in a locked Pelican case.
Traveling with weapons in the military is always a hassle, but doing it through commercial air is particularly difficult. I had never done it before, and it was a fairly novel experience to all of the airport personnel I met along the way. The biggest thing is that one must contain positive control over the weapon the entire time. You don’t just drop it on a conveyer belt and hope for the best, you walk with the weapon through security, watch it be loaded onto the plane and watch the door be locked behind it. Only then do you get on the plane. After landing, you watch the weapons case be offloaded and walk with it as it travels to the next plane where you repeat the procedure.
I had a layover in San Antonio, and the pilot on the plane had been briefed by someone about this process but didn’t quite know how to go about it. He led me down to the side of the plane where the baggage guy handed me my weapons and walked off without a word.
We looked at each other and shrugged.
The pilot said, “So… I guess you just take this to your next gate then. Good luck with everything.”
For anyone who has never clunked a five foot long black box against the counter at an airport terminal and told the lady behind the desk that you would like to be escorted with your assault weapons to the plane, this causes more than a little bit of a hubbub.
The crowd of very excitable airport security personnel that almost instantaneously surrounded me at that point displayed a variety of ideas as to how I ended up with special ops modified assault weapons inside a terminal that normally doesn’t allow people in with anything as dangerous as toothpaste. They also posited a number of theories as to what should become of me. I heard the words “terrorist,” “major violation” and “take him in immediately” thrown about with a good deal of fervor.
This entire time I focused on maintaining a state of relaxed poise. I was well dressed, lean, muscular, clean cut, and calmly and pleasantly answered all of their questions as if I knew exactly what I was doing and that the whole thing was a nuisance that was somehow their fault.
After a few minutes, the woman in charge of the TSA in the airport was aggressively dismissed by the men in charge of the airport’s overall operation, an apology was made for the behavior of the airport’s “uniformed people” and I was politely escorted to the plane with my weapons and a series of handshakes.
That situation could have gone either way, and had everyone in the group taken a more negative opinion of me, I could easily have ended up making phone calls from a holding cell somewhere. The main thing I could control in that situation in order to direct the frame through which I was perceived was my physical appearance and mannerisms.
Had this event coincided with the sunburned rash and spectacles episode, I’m entirely confident that I wouldn’t have been able to affect such positive perceptions of myself from the people I had interacted with and instead would have found myself on the phone with my commanding officer in Coronado saying, “So, funny story…”
Change Your Body, Change Your Life
Every day at Barefoot we see new people walk in who are there because they want their bodies to look better. They want to feel more confident and to project strength, youthfulness and poise. Although facial appearance is much less controllable than the physical appearance of one’s body (barring chemical rashes and sunburns of course), the two are somewhat related. They both affect the way the world perceives you, the way you perceive yourself and ultimately the coloring of your interpersonal interactions from day to day.
Some people are born as winning ticket holders in the genetic lottery. They’re either naturally attractive, naturally have a great body or both. The world treats them differently than someone else who didn’t have the same starting point or has experienced setbacks, but from the perspective of that inherently lucky person, that’s hard to fully understand.
In fact, it’s difficult to relate to anyone who is at a substantially different level than you, wherever that may be. The only way to really do it is to experience the fluctuations yourself and take notes from an objective perspective.
This is something I enjoy about the changes people undergo when they join Barefoot and begin to change their bodies for the better. After the experiences that I wrote about above, I know what that change feels like.
It’s not something as simple as pants fitting better, abs beginning to show or unimagined strength appearing. As these changes happen, the nature of this persons interactions from day to day change as well. As self perceptions and the perceptions of others improve, there is a shift in that person’s state of mind. It’s not just that this person is changing their body, it’s that along with it they are changing their life.
I’ll see their posture improve, not just from the workouts and corrective work, but because they feel more confident and carry themselves more openly. These people who came in on the first day shy, self-conscious and inhibited now walk with the self assured gait of an athlete.
Now, they can’t walk through the grocery store without being hit on. Their first workout, they weren’t sure they could do any of it. Now, they know they can and they want to see how much further they can go. They laugh more, talk more, and dynamically bounce from one conversation to the next; alternately encouraging and making fun of each other on the pullup bar. Their world has improved, their life is changing and they are directing those positive changes. It’s an extremely rewarding process to help facilitate.
This is the cool thing about being able to control the appearance of one’s body. Take a look in the mirror, or take that dreaded ‘before’ picture, and then decide what you’d like to see different. More muscle here, less fat there, better posture, healthier skin… How do you think your world would change?