A Rant About Seeing What`s Under Your Nose
August 16, 2012, 01:34 PM
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I'm reminded of something else I wanted to mention: how fans often don't really notice when there's something odd-looking about some star. Take the example of Dora Ratjen, who came in fourth in the women's high jump in front of (I'm presuming) 80,000 fans in the Berlin Olympics. A couple of years later, a train conductor objected that that the women's world record holder was just a young man in lady's clothing, and so he decided to give up the charade and go by the name Heinrich Ratjen. But it's not like he was hiding out until then.

Or extremely famous people can change their shape radically and it doesn't really come up. For example, Tiger Woods became extremely muscular over a couple of years around age 30 because he was working out like crazy in case he decided to give up golf and enlist in the Navy Seals. Now, that's pretty interesting, but it's not at all clear how many golf fans consciously noticed that the most publicized golfer in history was changing shape from month to month in front of their eyes. When I wrote an article about it in 2009, I did a bunch of Googling and found a lot of pictures, but it just didn't seem to be a topic of written interest to people interested in Tiger Woods.

Or people can be famous for their shapes and it never seems to come up that there's anything doubtful about why they are shaped like that. The craziest example is that in the 2003 California gubernatorial election, the Democrats almost never got around to bringing up the fact that Republican candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger was the world's most famous steroid user and that electing him governor of the largest state in the Union was the highest endorsement possible (Arnold being ineligible for the Presidency) to young people of society's approval of building a career on steroids.

It was hardly a secret — Arnold admitted to steroid use in his autobiography — and it wasn't some mistake of his foolish past — he had just been paid $30 million to star in Terminator 3, which was released just days before he started his campaign. Heck, Arnold did a nude scene in Terminator 3 to show off his regained massiveness. I wrote an article a few months before the election pointing all this out. But the Democratic operatives instead mostly went with the sex scandal stuff that they thought would be electoral dynamite: Hollywood star likes the ladies!

This is not to say that the steroid stuff would have hurt Arnold's run for governor, either. No doubt it wouldn't have. Democratic operative Gary South had brought it up the year before. I don't know why so little attention was drawn to it in 2003, when he was obviously back on the juice for Terminator 3: perhaps it didn't poll well. Or it didn't get much traction in 2002 when South faxed around a scandal sheet of sex and steroid stuff.

What's the explanation for this weird phenomenon? I'm reminded of the scene at the end of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when Hunter S. Thompson goes to Circus Circus to buy an ape:

I found Bruce at the bar, but there was no sign of the ape. "Where is it?" I demanded. "I'm ready to write a check. I want to take the bastard back home on the plane with me. I've already reserved two first-class seats — R. Duke and Son."  
"Take him on the plane?"  
"Hell yes," I said. "You think they'd say anything? Call attention to my son's infirmities?" 


Still, I don't think politeness is the full explanation. Maybe if somebody is presented in a socially approving way, like on TV or in Hitler's Olympic Stadium, people naturally just say to themselves, "Well, of course, that's what people who work out look like. I could probably look like that myself with some exercise."

Also, Hunter S. Thompson was probably onto something with booking first-class seats. He and his pet ape would no doubt get thrown out of coach, but they had a shot in first-class.

Another aspect is access journalism. If you want Tiger Woods on the cover of your magazine ever again, you don't ask him questions about him lifting weights every day ... unless you have a picture of him with a waitress in a parking lot.

Finally, let me come back to my recurrent theme of the inadequacy of tacit understandings. I am constantly being informed that we don't need horrible persons like me pointing out in writing things that we all understand perfectly well on an unspoken level. But it constantly turns out that we don't understand implicit knowledge when framed in a slightly different way. The Obama staffers who can judge what's a safe enough street in gentrifying Washington within a half block just by watching pedestrians stroll by will go back to the office and sue school districts for racial disparities in suspension rates.

The reason I have a relatively good understanding of the impact of PEDs on sports and movies is because in 1996-97 I spent a huge amount of time constructing and analyzing a database of Olympic running results by sex. By the time I was done, this vague hunch I had had that the narrowing of the gender gap after some point in the 1970s was largely due to artificial male hormones having a bigger impact on women was seared into me. I think the media as a whole is slowly catching on to that, finally, but without spelling it out over and over, people don't learn lessons well enough to apply them in slightly novel settings.

Finally, what people do notice are hair cuts. You don't even have to change hair styles, just get a haircut and other people will notice. You can grow a beard for a year, shave it off one evening, then go into work the next day and maybe one person will mention it. But, get your routine haircut, and five people will mention it the next day, even though there's not a lot to be said about it: "Yeah, I uh hadn't gotten a haircut for six or seven weeks, so I uh got one."