June 29, 2014

Long Conversation: Vanity

I'm taking part in a cross-country writing group called Long Conversation. Each month we get a question and have to come up with an answer. This month the question was: How do you think about your physical appearance? Here's what I wrote.

Even at a young age, I spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the bathroom mirror, inspecting my image and experimenting with it. I’d play at different hair styles and contort my face into something more preferable or more terrifying. Eventually, I learned that, besides simple curiosity, one of the names for this fascination with my own appearance was “vanity.” Although the word first assumed its real (shame-inducing) significance for me by way “Vanity Fair,” one of many dangerous distractions for Christian in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, I was still somewhat surprised when, years later, I later discovered that the English word vanity comes from the Latin vanus, which means empty or without substance. I had equated it with excess, drawing out the obvious connection between Bunyan’s morality tale and the name of what I thought was a risqué magazine whose sole purpose was to celebrate indulgence. Strange as it is, I think this misunderstanding gets at something central to the way I think about my apparent identity.

There’s a sense in which every attempt I make to think about my personal appearance is filtered through the experience of conscious self-reflection. It goes without saying that to be preoccupied, as I am, with my own self-image is a form of indulgence: a luxury, a privilege, an experience that I could probably do without. At the same time, however, the very thought of my appearance requires me to acknowledge a subjective lack. At a very basic level, the way I think I look is a reflection of what others see. Or, to put it another way, to imagine my appearance, I have to think in the abstract or, at the very least, deal with my image as an object, pulling together those barely-remembered photographs and mirror moments and arranging them into an intelligible collage or sequence: a cipher for a social subject who finds it more expedient, perhaps even more natural, to see himself as an individual. I know myself as a living reflection, a reflection of something I can only approach though technology and representation. All the way back to Plato’s cave, we’ve been dismissing images as distractions and dead-ends. This what Bunyan, an iconoclastic Protestant, was getting at when he gave the name Vanity to that prideful city in Pilgrim’s Progress. Vanity, like pride, positions the self as an idol, an object of worship. In the narrative of Christian salvation it is antithetical to the progress of the soul towards God. In other words, vanity turns one backwards. Bunyan’s allegory can ring hollow as an instance of antiquated piety, and by most interpretations it usually is. But apart from the mirror, how is it possible to access one’s appearance without indulging in some kind of retrospection, especially considering the flux and symbiosis of our bodies? When I try to imagine my appearance I defer to traces of photographs, the profile that I’ve managed to construct on Facebook. I get nostalgic.

A photograph can seem so false, so artificial; but it’s often closer to what others see. That toothy smile that seems to align in front of my bathroom mirror appears crooked and ghoulish if the camera captures me at the wrong angle. Of course, it works both ways. When I was much younger, I caught sight of my dad’s reflection through an open bathroom door and thought there was a stranger in our house. Encountering someone else’s reflection in the mirror can feel deeply estranging, but in reality we’re seeing that person as they most often see themselves.

My ongoing attempts to appraise my body and the way it appears are, often simultaneously, attempts to adhere to something else, whether it’s a socialized ideal or a nostalgic impression of a younger, better self. Being limited by my own subjectivity means that I have to isolate my body as an image in order to think about my appearance and the very fact that I can do this (and will do it all too easily) is an effect of my lived experience as a white male, seemingly healthy and well-proportioned, though increasingly vulnerable to accidents of clumsiness. What makes this empty, idealized image—this instance of vanity—so necessary? Why does it govern what I do to my body? And why does my body, in particular, appear so complacently in this privileged form of abstraction? By most North American standards of representation, there are things about my appearance that I simply don’t have to question. This means that I’m free to inspect my chin for blackheads and spend five minutes trying to pluck a stray nose hair; that I can buy four different types of anti-dandruff shampoo before any one of them runs out; and that I can preen and polish the dry patches of skin around my eyes and nose. My daily struggle in front of the mirror is microscopically insignificant, but this fact does not stop me from hunting down that last, visible flake of skin from my hairline, which, incidentally, is only visible under the blazing lights above our bathroom sink. Or perhaps I should call it our vanity.

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