1. On Slate, Emily Shire asks, “Should Celebrity Body ‘Struggles’ Make Us Feel Better About Ourselves?” and her insightful little response doubles as quite the treatise on the function of Standards (of beauty etc) and how attempts to allay judgment often backfire, i.e. that the notch on the scale isn’t the issue so much as the scale itself:

Allure’s feature is only one of the latest in a long line of magazine stories about female celebrities “bravely” grappling with their “physical imperfections.” A growing number of publications are trying to pass off barely-clad celebrities strutting their stuff as an inspiring act of heroism. Whether it’s to justify these as more than celebrities merely flaunting their professionally-trained and obsessively-sculpted figures or to deflect criticism for promoting poor body images, magazines have rebranded these spreads as ways to encourage women to embrace their bodies. The premise is that they’re doing female readers a favor by emphasizing how all women, even unrealistically amazing-looking women, have insecurities.

Allure is under the impression that the average woman will feel comforted knowing that, like herself, Maria Menounos has struggled with being “hippy” when in actuality, the average women will end up only further self-scrutinizing: “Oh my god, if she’s considered ‘hippy,’ what the hell am I?”

2. This past Sunday’s NY Times magazine contained a number of fascinating stories about the brain and mental illness. One article, “The Science and History of Treating Depression,” may not make for the easiest reading (unless you know something about neurochemistry), but the key shift in understanding that it’s trying to describe strikes me as important, namely, that depression is a result of biological (as well as spiritual) decay, ht SJ:

A remarkable and novel theory for depression emerges from these studies. Perhaps some forms of depression occur when a stimulus — genetics, environment or stress — causes the death of nerve cells in the hippocampus. In the nondepressed brain, circuits of nerve cells in the hippocampus may send signals to the subcallosal cingulate to regulate mood… In the depressed brain, nerve death in the hippocampus disrupts these signals — with some turned off and others turned on — and they are ultimately registered consciously as grief and anxiety. “Depression is emotional pain without context,” Mayberg said. In a nondepressed brain, she said, “you need the hippocampus to help put a situation with an emotional component into context”… But when the hippocampus malfunctions, perhaps emotional pain can be generated and amplified out of context — like [Elizabeth] Wurtzel’s computer program of negativity that keeps running without provocation. The “flaw in love” then becomes autonomous and self-fulfilling.

We “grow sorrowful,” but we rarely describe ourselves as “growing joyful.”Imprinted in our language is an instinct that suggests that happiness is a state, while grief is a process. In a scientific sense too, the chemical hypothesis of depression has moved from static to dynamic — from “state” to “process.”… Neurochemicals like serotonin still remain central to this new theory of depression, but they function differently: as dynamic factors that make nerves grow, perhaps forming new circuits. The painter Cézanne, confronting one of Monet’s landscapes, supposedly exclaimed: “Monet is just an eye, but, God, what an eye.” The brain, by the same logic, is still a chemical soup — but, God, what a soup.

3. Yahoo reported on a somewhat less clinical bit of psychology news, a new study out of Tufts University, looking at the relationship between suffering and secrecy, ht JD:

“The more burdensome the secret and the more thought devoted to it, the more perception and action were influenced in a manner similar to carrying physical weight,” the authors write… The brain doesn’t like secrets.

In 2006, Anita E. Kelly, a psychologist at the University of Notre Dame told the Association for Psychological Science that “secretive people also tend to be sick people.”

4. Another week, another Facebook-related social science study in The Atlantic. This time it’s “Are You Neurotic? Your Facebook Profile Probably Gives You Away”:

Personality, their findings suggest, can be accurately reflected on social media sites. … the suggestion of correlation is, in itself, fascinating. And a tad alarming. Because, if personality can be measured according to our social media presences, we can be measured, as well. And without our explicit permission.

5. For those of you in the Tri-State area who are not conferenced out, our friends at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, NJ are hosting an in-town retreat next weekend, 5/4-6, with none other than FitzSimons Allison, our conference speaker from 2009. The theme of the event is “Does God Know Who I Am?” and I have no doubt it will be a terrific and profound time. If you’ve never heard the good bishop speak, do yourself a favor! Go here for more info.

6a. Next, Theology Ryan Gosling is pretty inspired:

6b. In other parody-of-a-parody news, there’s “How To Spice Up a Dull Landscape Painting: Put a Monster On It” ht AZ.

7. In television, God-willing you’ve caught the three most recent episodes of Community, which have found the show firing on all madcap cylinders. Last night’s Law & Order spoof/tribute/farce (and the Ken Burns one from three weeks ago) have got to be among the most absurd thirty minutes ever aired to have aired on a major network. The new season of Game of Thrones has much to recommend it, and much not to recommend it. That is, the story has become increasingly gripping, yet every time it threatens to envelope the viewer, along comes some gratuitous reminder that we’re inside the fantasy life of some shifty thirteen year-old boy. Sigh… Girls, on the other hand, goes in the other direction: there’s nothing remotely fantastical about its aggressively sober depiction of male-female relations. If anything, it’s too much of a reality check. Hopefully now that it’s made its skin-related point (and alienated all the squares) it can focus on the true virtue of the series, which is Dunham’s Stillman-esque ear for dialogue and unswervingly sharp satirical instinct. Otherwise, Veep jumped out of the gate with a hilarious first episode. And as Aaron’s post this week implied, season five of Mad Men is proving to be very much worth the wait.

8. In music, Britpop plus Phil Spector plus Jesus = the new Spiritualized record, Sweet Heart Sweet Light. Pitchfork gave it a great review but predictably floundered when it came to Jason Pierce’s bottomed-out relationship with his creator, dismissing it as thematic shorthand (for what?!). With the possible exception of Nick Cave, I’m not sure there’s another (white) artist out there who’s been singing about and to Christ with more desperation and feeling and obvious sincerity these past twenty years than Pierce. Since, like Cave, his other favorite subjects tend to be drugs and death, the folks that gravitate toward his soundscapes tend to do cartwheels around the religious content. It’s pretty amusing to read the reviews. The snippet of the interview with Pierce mentioned in the Pitchfork write-up is one for the ages:  “When I sing, ‘Help me, Jesus,’ you know I’m not asking for help fixing the car.” One of several out-and-out gospel classics on the new disc is “So Long You Pretty Thing” – if you’re interested in giving the video below a go, just be sure to stick with it until minute 5:

9. In film, it’s a Joss Whedon universe, we just live in it! Cabin in the Woods outlived all expectations, except perhaps for the box office ones (so it goes when you make a film that subversive and smart, not to mention joke’s-on-us funny), and The Avengers is currently at 96% on RottenTomatoes. Thank God! Or the Sky Bully, as the case may be…

p.p.s. Another major thank you to everyone that helped with the conference last weekend! The next Mbird event is now on the calendar, so save the date: Sept 28-29 in Charlottesville, VA. More details coming soon (but keep in mind that hotel space fills up fast during football season…).