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The Faulty Logic behind Whales and Mermaids

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Faulty Logic behind Whales and Mermaids

If you've been on Facebook lately, you've surely come across this picture and parable about mermaids, whales, and body image.

A while back, at the entrance of a gym, there was a picture of a very thin and beautiful woman. The caption was "This summer, do you want to be a mermaid or a whale?"

The story goes, a woman (of clothing size unknown) answered the following way:

"Dear people, whales are always surrounded by friends (dolphins, seals, curious humans), they are sexually active and raise their children with great tenderness.
They entertain like crazy with dolphins and eat lots of prawns. They swim all day and travel to fantastic places like Patagonia, the Barents Sea or the coral reefs of Polynesia.
They sing incredibly well and sometimes even are on cds. They are impressive and dearly loved animals, which everyone defends and admires.

Mermaids do not exist.

But if they existed, they would line up to see a psychologist because of a problem of split personality: woman or fish?
They would have no sex life and could not bear children.
Yes, they would be lovely, but lonely and sad.
And, who wants a girl that smells like fish by his side?

Without a doubt, I'd rather be a whale.

At a time when the media tells us that only thin is beautiful, I prefer to eat ice cream with my kids, to have dinner with my husband, to eat and drink and have fun with my friends.

We women, we gain weight because we accumulate so much wisdom and knowledge that there isn't enough space in our heads, and it spreads all over our bodies.
We are not fat, we are greatly cultivated.
Every time I see my curves in the mirror, I tell myself: "How amazing am I ?! "

It's been reposted by everyone, expressing a sentiment no one dares disagree with, like supporting our troops or making sure the kids have a good Christmas this year. And I am not about to be Abbie Hoffman playing the part of Scrooge.

As a father, who is certainly going to one day have a daughter, because Justine wants a baby girl, and if it means I have to field a fucking baseball team trying, Justine will get what she wants, because she's Justine, and I work for her, I fear having to raise a girl in this world.

I've written earlier about my infatuation with Glamour, Cosmo, Redbook, et al., ( because it provides a glimpse into the mixed messages that women, and in particular young girls, receive regarding body image.  One minute they are told to love their bodies, no matter its shape and size, and the next that are assaulted with junkie-thin waifs with little boy hips in the latest French, black and white fashion.  Growing up as a boy sucked.  Growing up as anything sucks.  But as self-centered and -absorbed as I can be, I can appreciate that girls have it much harder.  Boys have a disagreement, we punch each other, and then it's over and we play space cowboy.  Girls are...more involved.

I remember the hierarchy in high school.  The rungs boys had to climb were clearly stacked, in an upward, straight line.  The better you played sports, the more confident you were, the less insecure, the higher you rose.  Looks didn't matter so much.  There were several ugly boys in high school who were quite popular (and you know who you are, you ugly bastards).  Girls, it was all about looks, and if a girl looked slightly different, was a little bit overweight, she had a fucklot to overcome to get in the cool cliques.  So I get it.  I'd see the cattiness, the vicious ways some girls would be mocked and marginalized, and now I read these women's magazines, see what's trotted out and paraded around on the American's Next Top Project Runway Whatever, and can recognize that unless a young girl is in the, like, the fifth percentile of looking a certain way, she is going to have a lifetime of battling to be accepted for who she is.  Which totally sucks.  I appreciate this as a human being.  

But as a writer, this whale/mermaid thing drives me nuts.  

The first two-thirds is awesome.  The author details the daily life of whales, talks about what great mothers they make and how well they sing, how playful and happy and beloved they are, and you can't argue with that logic.  In terms of the writing, the author has presented a sound, irrefutable case, drawing a direct correlation between the "whale" and plus-sized women, and she's done so in a way that is both humorous and playful, eschewing the didactic or pedantic; we are free to make this connection ourselves.  Then we get the punchline: mermaids don't exist. Now I may be a vain, shallow man, but I'm thinking, Right on!  You tell 'em girl! OK.  I'm probably not thinking that exactly, but if someone in Starbucks had that on a T-shirt, I'd probably give a cool, knowing nod in his or her direction as I ordered my nonfat, sugar free vanilla latte.

Now, as a writer, I'd say stop there.  You've done you're job, made your point.  Why risk ruining it?  But then the piece kicks into a higher gear, with even more clever lines about how if mermaids did exist they'd be in therapy for a split personality, and how lonely they'd be because, well, they don't have, a well, you know.  And the part about how no man wants a woman who smells like fish lying beside him is laugh out loud funny.  And then we're back with the whales and how this author would rather eat ice cream with her husband and enjoy life than obsess over jean size, and, you're thinking, yeah, man, life is for living.  You don't need to subsist on roots and weeds. Have a goddamn piece of pie once in a while if you want it.  Put real butter on your bread (but not mine, please; I don't eat carbs).  A cupcake won't kill you. Seriously, I am not a Chicken Soup for the Soul kinda guy, but as positive affirmations go, this one's pretty good.  A good message, delivered with the right mix of weight and levity, and its analogy is sound.

Then the author has to go and fuck it all up.

"We women, we gain weight because we accumulate so much wisdom and knowledge that there isn't enough space in our heads, and it spreads all over our bodies.  We are not fat, we are greatly cultivated."


Seriously?  That is the fucking dumbest thing I've ever heard.  You gain weight read too much?  Master advanced trigonometry?

No.  You gain weight because you eat too much.  It doesn't make a difference if you are a man or a woman, if you take in more calories than you burn, you will gain weight.  Conversely, if you burn more than you ingest, you will lose weight.  It's not magic.  It's all about making sound nutritional choices and getting an adequate amount of exercise.  Lean proteins, healthy fats, grains and fibers.  Don't drink soda. Don't eat the entire bag of Cheetos in one sitting.  Go for a walk.  You can have the occasional treat, but do so in moderation.  Don't you think this is the healthier, better message we should be sharing with our kids, instead of some ludicrous notion that skinny people are stupid?  That we have some control over what we put in our bodies and how we care for them?  Isn't that really the way we love ourselves?  And even if you want to say, Fuck you, Joe.  I'll eat whatever I want, whenever I want, because life is short and gyms smell (admittedly, they do.  Pretty awful, actually), you still can't say the bigger the pant suit, the closer to Mensa.

Why ruin this story with something this fantastical and blatantly untrue?  As a reader, I am now ripped out of the illusion.  It's no different than a detective story, when a man who was previously described as having no hands is suddenly holding a gun. 

It wouldn't bother me so much if every jackass hadn't plastered his Facebook wall with it for the last three days, followed by the mindless platitudes of "if you agree, pass it on."  Shit like this is really making me start to hate Facebook.  Which I'd seriously consider deleting if it wasn't such a vital (i.e., the only) part of my social life.  

It's like this Seinfeld clip.  The parable offends me, not as a person, but as a writer.


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At October 6, 2011 at 10:48 AM , OpenID XvMaryJane said...

Just wanna say (as I've said to Justine before): Girly women who super want a baby girl will have a passel of baby boys until they give up. It's how the world works... from what I've seen.

Now, by sounding off on my certainty that Justine will have another boy, I'm opening the possibility for her baby-girl having, because the world also works in a fashion to disprove anything uncertain I claim as absolute. Justine will definitely not have a girl.

At October 9, 2011 at 5:51 PM , Blogger Jenny Dreadful said...

Right on. I've seen this post - and scratched my head thinking, "Huh. My IQ goes up the more I ingest? Where's my fucking MENSA card and ice cream?"

At October 9, 2011 at 6:40 PM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

Jenny, are you on the FB?

At October 10, 2011 at 12:47 PM , Blogger Shannon said...

YES! I have scoured the internet today looking for someone who dares to disagree with this drivel. Stupid. The writer is not a good writer and I don't believe she ever took a class in logic, so her fat knowledge must have come from some other classes. I guess if I want to lose this baby weight I should quit my job, stop reading and watch reality tv all day. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

At October 10, 2011 at 3:24 PM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

Glad it spoke to you, Shannon! I was worried that I might come off sounding like an insensitive jerk. (Which I'm not. At least, I hope.) I've been around women my whole life, so I really do get how much harder y'all have it than us guys when it comes to appearance and weight and the media and all that. And no matter what ANYone looks like, if he/she is confident and comfortable with that, God bless them. I just believe (actual) knowledge is power, and rather than feeling powerless and like weight gain/control is the byproduct of some magical process that it is better to be grounded in facts and know that ultimately we DO have a say in some of this stuff. It's hard, no doubt, but that should also make us feel powerful, no? Knowing that we can be proactive in getting what we want. Anyway, thanks for reading!

At October 13, 2011 at 4:11 AM , Blogger Jenny Dreadful said...

Yes, under Jenny Dreadful!

At October 13, 2011 at 6:33 AM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

Jenny, I'm an idiot. I can't find you. Here I am, should you be so inclined...

At October 13, 2011 at 5:22 PM , Blogger Jenny Dreadful said...

Ah - I'm as paranoid about my privacy as a Vietnam vet with flashbacks. Figures you didn't find me. Request sent!

At November 18, 2011 at 11:23 AM , Blogger Minta Entertainment said...

Can I just add that although I see your point about it not being logically sound reasons for the whale / mermaid analogy, I believe it doesn't have too. Women know that it isn't knowledge making them larger.... I'm only a size 10 to 12 and I'll happily buy into the fantasy that I have the power to choose to eat ice cream and love who I am and being loved by those I care about just Like the whale... Once you hear what you want to hear in something, the rest no longer matters. Not to me and apparently not to very many others it would seem.....

At November 18, 2011 at 11:32 AM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

Minta, I think that is the part of the parable that resonates. As I mentioned earlier in the post, the sentiment of power, rather than powerlessness, is what propels the piece. Which is why I was so disappointed by the author's decision to resort to, well, a sort of fantastical magic, which is the exact opposite of the having control and a say in an outcome. It may be quibbling, but I am a writer, and this is (mostly) a writing blog, so it makes sense I'd fixate on that. But I do see your point, and I don't think the author's poor choice at the end negates everything good that precedes. And you are correct, this parable achieved viral status because so many see themselves in it. As a writer, it may just be harder for me to overlook logistical flaws. Then again, this parable wasn't really written for someone like me in mind, so my opinion, in the end, doesn't count nearly as much as those who are impacted (positively) by the overarching themes.

At December 29, 2011 at 5:45 PM , Blogger Tania Cepero Lopez said...

Hey Joe,

Just wanted to say I'm really enjoying your blog. As I'm preparing myself, in practical and psychological ways, for the Spring semester, I'm tempted to use this entry to teach my students about textual analysis. Would you be cool with that?


At December 29, 2011 at 6:33 PM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...


So nice to hear from you. Of course! By all means, use whatever. Hope my writing can help teach...something.



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