Weekly Edgework #60 - August 22, 2005

The Way We Look

No matter how hard we try, compensating for our alleged narcissism by either underrating or overrating our appearance, we never get it right. Comparing ourselves with media images that bear little resemblance to the way we look, we become frustrated with bodies that leave a lot to be desired (The Art of Imperfection, Véronique Vienne, p. 20).

As far back as I remember I hated the way I looked on a photograph. And even at this stage in life, whenever I am asked for a picture of myself to be published along with an article I have written, for example, I have a very hard time coming up with a picture with which I am satisfied. I have always been keenly aware of my facial faults. One eye is smaller than the other. My nose is slightly oversized and leaning to the left. One ear is lower than the other. When I smile, the left side of my face smiles more than the right, leaving a somewhat sinister impression – as though I am trying to cover up an evil plot. And now a hairline that has receded to within a few inches of my shirt collar only serves to accent my eccentric appearance.

I remember as a child, when playing with my friends or doing something I enjoyed, how I experienced short periods of reprieve from this negative self-assessment. That is until I walked past a mirror or we began looking at photographs. Then the truth of my appearance came back with a vengeance. Why do I look like a nerd? I thought to myself. How much better life would be if I looked like the handsome models in the Eatons Catalogue stuck under the couch at home! And I didn’t like all those mirrors in stores, especially department stores. If I caught my image in one of the full-length mirrors as I strolled down the aisle, I stuck my tongue out at myself, basically to remind myself that I was not good looking.

By way of contrast, Judy – a girl who rode on our school van – was considered to be beautiful. And I agreed. Her face and figure were picture perfect, as far as I could figure out. She was popular and once she reached her teen years all the boys at school grew an inch every time they could hold her hand for one round on the open-air ice rink. And of course she obliged every boy. I suspect she knew she was pretty and took full advantage of it. I remember how she seemed to enjoy looking at herself in a mirror while riding the school van – just to make sure, I guess, that she was still as beautiful as others thought she was. A little added rouge, a touch of lipstick and eye shadow, and she became someone to die for!

Vienne says that both Judy and I had a problem – basically a severe case of narcissism, that is a preoccupation with ourselves and how we appeared. My underrating and her overrating of appearance were both symptoms indicating that we were too engrossed with ourselves and our appearances. For both of us, I am sure, the only relief came in those moments when we used our eyes for what they were made – to look forward at something other than ourselves.

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to look at your own face without the use of a mirror? If our eyes were meant to constantly gaze upon our own visage they would likely be placed on six-inch protrusions and face backwards. As it is, the only part of my face I have ever really seen is my nose, and even then it is badly out of focus. And when I try to self-inspect my body, most of the time my nose gets in the way or the body part is totally hidden from view. Only with the aid of front, rear and side view mirrors can I come close to actually seeing myself. But even then it is only an image, not the real me!

I wonder what life would be like if mirrors had not yet been invented – especially the full-length mirror that came along at the end of the 17th century. Or cameras for that matter. Both have invaded the human experience quite recently. And I think it is fair to ask whether their introduction has helped or hindered our human development. I suppose we could say that mirrors have encouraged us all to present a neater image for others to look upon, and that the pictures that cameras produce can help us remember others more efficiently. However, when one is realistic about their shadow-sides, one has to admit that they have also fueled a self-absorption with outward appearance that has led us evermore directly into a culture of narcissism.

Now I am not proposing that we go on a rampage to break all mirrors and cameras we come across. However, perhaps we would do well to downgrade their significance for producing the kind of life we were meant to live. If we remember that our eyes are situated on our bodies in order to look out beyond ourselves, it seems to me we will come closer to life as it was meant to be. Constant self-inspection combined with comparison of what we see when we look ahead is really quite unnatural to the human species.

If I could have learned this earlier in life it would have spared me a lot of unnecessary agony about the way I looked. It could have helped Judy too, had she known about it. I am only now beginning to believe it is true when others tell me that I look quite okay. That the quirks of my visage only help to define the real me which they have chosen to accept and love. The more I believe this, the more I can use my eyes for what they were meant to be used – to look out beyond myself in order to engage myself with that wider world of mystery and wonder.