The Halo Effect | Why we’re so fucking vain

It’s the smallest thing that can make your day. A good coffee. A smile from a stranger. Or even better, the following words (accompanied by a smile!) from a stranger:

“I’m so sorry to interrupt and I hope I this isn’t impertinent but I just wanted to tell you that you’re one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen, you’re just stunning and I had to tell you. I hope you have a great day”.

It wasn’t a sleazy come-on. He had no ulterior motive that I could see, he didn’t want my number or even my name – he was exiting the cafe as he said it and didn’t even wait to for me to say thank you before he left. His intention, it seems, was to simply say something nice about how I look.

And despite the kind nature of his (unsolicited) words, I sat there thinking about my looks and the role they play in my life. Compliment economics aside, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’ve just been a part of a perpetuation of a pesky cognitive bias called the Halo Effect.

Compliments aren’t free

You see, it got me thinking. I know I’m much more than my exterior. I know that. And maybe I was having a good hair day or my particular genetic composition appealed to this man’s particular aesthetic preferences. Either way, I’m aware that how I look doesn’t define me.

He didn’t know a single thing about me except the shape of the vessel that houses my quintessence.

But the reality of life is that how we initially judge people is often based on looks. And therein lies the source of my inner conflict.

Does image matter? Yes. Yes it does.

The short answer is yes. It’s not all that matters – but it matters.

And no it’s not because of the patriarchy or your mums weird hangup about always wearing makeup.

The reason you should consider your image important is as old as the dawn of time – or the dawn of sapiens at least. And it’s because of a cognitive bias called the Halo Effect.

The Halo Effect occurs when:

“a single quality – whether beauty, social status, age, etc. – produces in us a positive or negative impression that outshines everything else.”

The unfortunate, but very real side effect of this cognitive bias is that we are predisposed to regard good looks as an indicator of trustworthiness, likeability and intelligence – and there’s scientific consensus that we demonstrably do this.

Why the Halo Effect exists

Our brains are pre-programmed, thanks to thousands of years of evolutionary biology to favour pretty people, as they’re more likely to be healthy and therefore re-productively sound (which historically, was the determining factor of whether you and your genes survived). 

This unconscious bias is the driving force behind why we judge others based on their looks – because this mental shortcut allows us to make judgements about others more quickly and effectively.

The unfortunate part is that these snap judgements aren’t always right and they almost never tell the full story.

Body positive is getting negative

In a body positive world it is no longer kosher to be appraised for ones looks. Having unconscious bias is akin to having a disease – the symptoms are trigger warnings and micro-aggression’s and the medicine is (supposedly) re-training your brain to never take a mental shortcut again.

But this goes to the heart of the problem – how do we manage a tendency that is hardwired into our cognition?

Don’t get me wrong here. I want to make it very clear I believe people should be judged on much more than looks. In fact it’s vitally important that we consider the entirety of a person before we decide what kind of person they actually are. But this requires effort and more significantly, it takes time – certainly more than a 15 second interaction. Which is certainly more than our pre-programmed biology will allow us in that time frame.

And so, this seemingly innocuous interaction raised questions like:

  • Am I allowed to enjoy a compliment about my looks?
  • Is he a shallow asshole for saying it?
  • Am I a shallow asshole for appreciating it? Liking it, even?
  • Should I be offended?
  • Should I be upset?
  • Was I being objectified?

I know people that would have found it offensive. I know people that would have been triggered.

But I didn’t. And I wasn’t. Does that make me a bad feminist? Am I anti-body-positivity?

Aren’t you more than your outside?

I know I’ve always wanted to be more than my outside.

Seven years ago the state of my ‘outside’ mattered a lot more than I care to admit. I was overweight. I was unhealthy. I didn’t exercise (like, ever) and I ate Macca’s at least 3 times a week. It was a self inflicted condition that I resented all the same.

It took two full years but I lost 20kgs. Five years on and I’m fitter and healthier than I’ve ever been, I’ve maintained my weight loss. I feel good. My skin is clear, my body is strong and my mind is confident. I workout everyday at 6am. I’m about to take on the Kokoda Track.

By most peoples standards, I look better than I used to. Because I’m thinner. Now, I get complimented by strangers – that certainly never used to happen.

There’s less of me, so that makes me easier to look at. It’s a perplexing thing, because it shouldn’t matter how I look, it should only matter how I feel… right?

Overcoming external forces

There are a plethora of movements encouraging women to weigh more than the relationship between their body and the earth’s gravitational pull (looking at your good work here, Jameela Jamil). They serve an important purpose. Every body is not the same and nor should it be.

But these movements muddy the waters for those that love their body but want more from it and for it.

Beyonce, a categorical equality champion has written songs about how much ‘Pretty Hurts’. And yet she too is human and fallible – admitting in her recent documentary, Homecoming that she had cut out essentially all food except vegetables (she was dairy, gluten, carb and sugar free), and was excising for hours a day, to get back to her pre-baby body.

I’ve read scathing indictments filled with cries of ‘how could she’, questioning the validity of her commitment to feminism and equality – all because she wanted to work hard to gain her strength back to look and feel good.

This is the part I find problematic.

Is striving to be healthier, fitter, stronger – and yes, skinnier – now offensive?

Internalised misogyny personal growth

What concerns me is the radicalized notion that because I wasn’t *chokes in indignation* offended by a man finding my visual appealing, that I must have internalised the oppressive misogyny that (allegedly) pervades the world.

I reject this wholeheartedly. The halo effect is real – but so is every individuals ability to choose their thoughts and opinions. I contradict myself here knowingly and purposefully. Cognitive biases are immediate and most often go unnoticed – but deep thought and analysis are drawn out and unmissable.

I believe that all humans capable of rational and logical thought are also capable of analysing their attitudes and instincts and overcoming their initial reactions bought on by cognitive nuances like the Halo Effect.

I’m not thinner because of the pressure of the male gaze – I’m thinner because I chose health, nutrition, strength and stamina for myself.

I’m not a ‘bad feminist’ because I chose to believe that my body was capable of much more that I had been asking from it.

Fitspo for life

I love being healthy. I’m a #fitspo wanker that drinks green juice and does yoga. It’s a fun hobby… that keeps me in a socially acceptable weight range. I make my own granola and try (and just as often fail) to meditate and be mindful. These are all good things for my body and soul. But I think it’s important to recognize that I do these things as part of a wider need I feel to keep myself in a state suitable for social consumption.

For a long time the feminist in me wondered how good it was that I’d succumbed to the pressure every woman feels to fit in – was I just a part of the problem, piling even more tension into an already heavy conversation about female objectification and sexualisation?

I think it’s important to raise these questions. To consider my own actions – am I helping or harming? Is my ‘fitness journey’ really just another sad commentary on the importance placed on looking a certain way? I write all this while I sit here drinking my organic green tea in my moisture-wicking (what even is that?) Lulu Lemons and am reminded that image is everything. Wearing the right clothes, eating the right things, even just for their instagramableness (screw you dictionary, it’s a word now) MATTERS. The halo effect is real, guys.

Broken halo’s aren’t so bad

I’d like to think that it’s more important to be healthy and happy. That, given the startling increase in obesity rates, I’m part of a solution in a consumptive and excessive society. That self-love and self-care are the ultimate goals of the health and well-being movement that’s swept across Australia in the last few years.

I’m not going to stop using raw cacao (cocoa is so 5 years ago) and I’m not going to start taking offence when a stranger compliments me. Yes, I am more than my outside. Yes, how I look matters. But you know what? It should be OK for those two things to exist in parallel.

Kokoda Track | 1 month of training to go

‘Strong’ is a mindset

‘You’re looking strong,’ said one of the coaches as he walked past. He wasn’t in the class I was taking, but he was nearby, taking a private PT client. He took the time to walk past so he could tell me the change he could see in me, since I’d announced, 8 months prior to his entire gym, that I planned to take on the Kokoda Track.

I grinned.

‘I know,’ I thought to myself.

Instead I just said thanks. And that I apprecaited him saying that.

And I really did.

But what I appreciated even more was that I didn’t need to hear it.

For the first time in my life I didn’t require a single piece of external validation to confirm what I already knew – that I was strong. That I could do it. That after 6 months of hard training, I was ready.

That I was ready to take on Kokoda.

Sometimes, it’s important to ignore your family

My family thinks I’m idiotic to be carrying my own pack. My Grandad, bless his soul, concerned and direct as ever, called me stupid. My mother, a perpetual worry-wart, offered to pay the $700 for a local villager to carry my shit for me.

I refused of course.

And now it’s my pride that’s on the line. I want to prove what I already know – that I can do it.

I’m not stupid enough to think it will be easy. Or that I won’t hate most – if not all – of it.

But I’ve come to believe that I can endure it. Survive it. Conquer it.

And that’s all I’m really asking of myself at this point.

Kokoda Track Predictions

  • Sleep will suck. I have a penchant for king beds and memory foam. I’ll be getting a blow up mattress and a fold up pillow.
  • My mind will falter long before my body does.
  • My body will falter long after I think it will.
  • I’ll cry.
  • I’ll accidentally (or maybe even on purpose) eat meat. Girl’s gotta eat, ya know?
  • I’ll have the best shower of my life the day the trek finishes.

Will take bets on any of the above.

Days to Kokoda Track: 24

Kokoda Track | Reflecting on 1 month of training

Taking on the Kokoda Track

So I’ve decided to take on a pretty big challenge. I’m one month into my training for the Kokoda Track.

It feels slow and as though I’m not doing enough. My trainer tells me I’m doing a lot – more than I need to, even. It’s hard to tell.

All I know is that the fear is what’s keeping me motivated at this point.

Fear of not being able to finish.
Fear of being the slowest in the group.
Fear of failure.
Fear of failure.

It’s a powerful motivator, fear. And it makes me run 5km faster, climb Jacobs Ladder one extra time and sprint one more interval each week. Without that fear I don’t think I’d be doing as much as I am – or more importantly, that I’d be able to stick to it.

Fear = motivation

I suppose the specifics of the motivating factor don’t really matter in this case since it’s for a positive outcome that makes me healthier and drives me toward an audacious goal.

I’ve noticed though that the winning isn’t actually in the doing – I often don’t care how fast or far I’ve gone. Because the battle starts long before – it’s starts, always, with the battle of will to simply show up. To fight my own ennui and show the fuck up. Every. Single. Time.

Fear is not the enemy

I’m only now beginning to realise how powerful fear is. It’s spoken about so negatively. It’s something to be avoided at all costs. But it’s the reason I’m getting to 6am workouts every single weekday. It’s the reason I drag my ass to Jacobs Ladder at 7.30am every Saturday morning. It’s the reason I’m learning to run – which I fucking hate, it turns out. But I do it anyway. Because my fear makes me

Other lessons I’ve learned training for the Kokoda Track:

> One missed workout doesn’t matter – but two does.
> A good PT is worth every dollar
> Sleep is the key. To everything. To life.
> Hill sprints were invented by the devil and he watches and laughs as I do them.

Days to Kokoda: 134

You can also read my ‘One month to go‘ reflections.

Breathing | You’re probably doing it wrong

Are you breathing?

Stop. (Participate and listen). Are you breathing?

Where is your breath, this very second? Are you holding it? Is it’s slowly oozing out of you in a deep sigh? Are you sniffing it in, with short, sharp, shallow bursts? Is it stuck in your chest or at back of your throat? Or is it flowing freely up and down your spine?

This is your life. This one breath is your one and only life. You only ever get one of these babies at a time – so are you treating it right, are you paying attention, is it serving you?

I didn’t think so. You probably forgot you were breathing at all!

Breathing goes way back

The breath has long been recognised in many eastern traditions and practices, for thousands of years in fact. In Hindu philosophy and yogic meditation teachings it is called ‘prana’; in Chinese tradition, when practising Tai chi it is the eponymous ‘chi’ (or ‘Qi’) – they all speak to the breath as the same thing though – the cosmic, life giving force and the carrier of life energy.

How did the breath gain the prestige of being the bodies key anchor and force? Isn’t our heart the most important thing, the beating centre of our being? Or the brain, the collection of nerve endings firing chemicals across our synapses to create our consciousness? They all have their place. And the human body is in itself a study in miracles! But the breath.. now that’s a special piece of the puzzle.

Breaking down the science

It’s the only system in our body that is both conscious and subconscious. The respiratory centre in your brain stem is autonomously, continually reminding your lungs to breath – you breathe without conscious thought. But the unique characteristic of breathing is that it can also be voluntarily regulated.

It is the gateway to activating the parasympathetic system and the one pathway you have to gaining control over typically involuntary process like your heartbeat. But much more than that, it can give you control over  other slippery subjects – like your thoughts and emotions.

You know the ones I’m talking about – the kind of thoughts that run amok in your mind, the kind of emotions that knock over self esteem, drag around fear and stomp on gratitude. This is where the ancient practice of meditation comes in.

Tricks of the trade – breath work for beginners

I’m no magician and I can’t breath underwater. But I do know that there are some good ways to stay floating on top of the waves, so they don’t drown you.

Breath Focus
This is literally as simple as it sounds. It’s the most common form of meditation because of how easy it is. In fact, it’s so easy, you’ll probably think you’re missing something or doing it wrong! But it’s legitimately:
  • Sitting, or lying (whatever is most comfortable) in a quiet space
  • Spending a few minutes (as little as 2 or as many as 20) focusing on your breath moving in and out of your body
  • Whenever you notice yourself thinking about things and stuff that aren’t your breath – just gently bring your attention back to your breathing again

Box Breathing
Box breathing is a more structured version of breath focus, that might be great if you know your mind prefers a more process-driven approach. It’s the same principle, but with a specific breathing pattern:

  • Sit or lie in a comfortable position in a comfortable space
  • Breath in for a count of 4, hold your breath inside your body for a count of 4 (without tension or tightness in your lungs), breath out for a count of 4 and then hold the breath out for a count of 4 (again, without tension, as much as possible)
  • Change the count depending on your lung capacity (counts of 3, or 5, whatever works best) and work to whatever feels good
  • If you find you’ve stopped counting and that your mind has wandered off, just re-focus and continue the count

Control your breath – control your life

The experience of losing your breath isn’t unique or singular – it’s universal and completely normal.

But, inherently, so is your breath. It’s yours. It’s your magic. It’s your life force.

It’s the path to your inside – literally, physically – but also in that other way, the warm, fuzzy way, that gives you back the power over your own mind, the quiet and the calm and the control.

Your meditation practice doesn’t have to be long or fancy. It just has to be yours.

So are you paying attention yet? Where is your breath? And where will it take you next?

Dry 2017 | 3 months into my year without drinking

3 months stone cold sober

“Do you want a drink?”
“No I’m good thanks.”
“Not drinking tonight?”
“No… not drinking this year actually! I’m doing Dry 2017.”
The first (and my favourite) reaction is usually: “Good on you!”
The next comment is either “God, I could never do that!” or “But, wine?!”
Because not drinking for a year is a big deal in 2017. Because not drinking makes you a bit different and a bit weird and a bit confusing.. “Like, how do you have fun when you go out?”
And then of course comes the inevitable: “But, why?”

Why I started my year without drinking

For me it’s so simple. I dislike how alcohol tastes, how it makes me feel and how awful hangovers are in my old age.
But more than that – I just don’t need alcohol to have a good time. I enjoy every night out (or in!) stone cold sober because I enjoy the natural high I get from the people I surround myself with.

Ok, ok, the real reason..

The catalyst for this year was obvious for me – after a particularly rowdy New Years Eve that left me in bed until 7PM on New Years Day, I made the choice to stop drinking for a while.. and at some point I realised I could do this for ages. A whole year if I wanted. So that’s what I’m doing.
The side effects are numerous and include:
  • Uber-hydration
  • Strange looks
  • Interesting (remembered) conversations
  • Saved money
  • Productive weekends
  • A healthy liver
  • A clear mind

Sharing the sober life

The most interesting part to me though is the permeation of the idea to the sober curious people around me, an osmosis-like acceptance of the ‘dry’ approach.
My best friend and my boss have both launched into varying degrees of dryness, from a successful month to their own year long attempts.
To me this is by far the best part. Because it means I’m living breathing proof that you can have fun without drinking. That’s not to say I’ll never drink again or that I dislike or judge anyone that chooses to consume alcohol.
Come Jan 1st 2018 I may feel completely differently!
(Spoiler alert, I don’t – and you can read my 2019 #drylife update here).
For now though – it’s just not for me.
Could you do a whole year, completely dry? Or am I totally crazy for even trying? Tell me what you think: 

Want to get updates straight into your inbox?

Every week I send out an email with my latest pondering.