Stuffing your self-esteem 

Bill Cosby may be famous for a few other minor things, but I think what truly made him a star was a bit he did in a comedy routine about cocaine.

As I remember the line, people who liked to partake of the drug would tell him it intensifies their personality. "Yes," he would say, "but what if you're an asshole?"

I think about this observation a lot, especially when I hear someone being advised that on a date or a job interview the best course of action is to "be yourself!" This might explain the unemployment rate and the proliferation of personal ads. A lot of people could do with faking more brains, grace and good posture than they actually have (myself included, I'm sure).

Still, self-esteem has been cited as supremely important to the well-adjusted individual's psyche; and, in our current cultural climate, we are prompted to love and accept ourselves no matter what. Who would want to dispute that we are all absolutely darling, as is?

Well, psychologist Lauren Slater did an interesting job of questioning that idea in a New York Times Magazine story last February. Despite the high esteem we give to self-esteem, "crime rates and substance-abuse rates are formidable," Slater says. Not all self-worth may be such a great thing, some of her research suggests; and the article differentiated between high "well-grounded" self-esteem and high "unstable" self-esteem.

Sometimes, the story seems to suggest, we might have too much pride for too little reason -- or for all the wrong reasons.

Who's the wiener?

Nothing illustrates the fine line more than the single weirdest, most baffling TV program I've ever seen. Is pride real or misplaced in a person who eats an entire pizza in under 5 minutes; 12 matzo balls in 2 minutes, 25 seconds -- or 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes?

Gutbusters, which recently aired on the Discovery channel, shows the adventures of a handful of participants in a form of competition that (like so many sporting events of late) has gone extreme: competitive eating.

We've all heard of the innocuous pie-eating contests at county fairs, but those events are child's play for competitive eaters who derive self-esteem from shoveling food into their faces until they look as though they're about to vomit. The activity is serious enough to sport its own version of the NBA, the International Federation of Competitive Eating, or IFOCE (, which sets rules for and gives information about eating events around the world. Speaking of, it's not just an American sport: The Scots host a haggis-eating championship, the Germans host a bratwurst-eating event and Japanese contestant Takeru Kobayashi smashed the hot dog-eating record to smithereens with that unprecedented 50-in-12-minutes win at Nathan's, Coney Island, last Fourth of July.

I'm one who always wants to cheer people on in their personal passions. But when I see one of these guys in "training," hunkered down over a 76-ounce steak (just imagine a meat table cloth covering your accent table), sweating and slobbering with cheeks chipmunked out on both sides, mouth too crammed to close completely, looking like a drunk who's about to tell you he loves you before heaving all over your shoes, it's a little hard to believe that all pursuits are equally beautiful.

Nobody's asking these guys to cure cancer or pull off any kind of miracle, but when you hear the jalape–o-eating champ discussing whether its less painful to dispel numerous eaten peppers "as nature intended," or dispel them the other way, you have to wonder whether it's time to put non-judgmentalism aside and declare, "There could be a better use of any person's time."

Ahead in the stretch

And let's not even talk about the "there-are-starving-kids in Rwanda" aspect of watching people inhale a week's worth of food to see who the biggest glutton is.

Eating disorders -- binging, purging, compulsion -- are usually thought of as low self-esteem things, but here guys are doing it for cheering crowds and winning trophies for it. Competitive eating seems like a combination of high self-esteem, because it is competitive, and low self-esteem because: How much of a masochist do you need to be to let your stomach stretch out to the size of a 3-year-old child?

If you get a chance to see one of these things (the hot dog championship at Coney Island is coming up again on July 4), do it for the same reason you can't help but look at a car wreck when you pass by.

It all seems to come back to Bill Cosby's joke: Having high self-esteem assures that you'll be true to thine own self. But what if thine own self is engaged in something that's literally nauseating?

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