shiny noses, protruding ears, thick waists

Some days I see patterns everywhere. Maybe I do something and it’s as though I can see all the puzzle pieces of my past coming together, little ooh-la-la-aha moments of how I got to where I am today. The magnifying glass of introspection feels so bright when one is young and intense, when with passionate angst we analyze self and others. Vision, though, at least when viewing ourselves, seems to grow more acute with time and experience. Inward focus sharpens as reading glasses grow in strength. Or so it seems.

But patterns, yes, I was talking of patterns, and how often in the course of a day separate thoughts or conversations or articles read or people met converge and do a little dance in my mind.

The day started out with this.

Three boys giddy with joy as they arrived at the bus stop with bouquets of thrilled Barbies, these belonging, of course, to their sisters. No boy on the cusp of middle school would dare play with dolls, right? (Well, no, not necessarily, but I’m pretty confident I can say this about these three boys.) The license for this burst of dolly joy was apparently a science project, something about force and bungees and their effect on the dolls, these all dressed in their finest, hair tossed by the coolness of Fall. One arrived home without a head, but that was to be expected, I suppose.

I was struck not only by their smiles and the deliciousness of their unabashed silliness, but also by the fact that I knew, from experience, that soon they will catch up to the girls and will be far more self-conscious, hyperaware of what is perceived to be cool, of the need to contain that unfettered joy depending on who is watching. At ten or eleven they are teetering on the edge of that blissful stage in a boy’s life which cannot anticipate the tumult ahead, the severn bore of puberty. I’ve “airbrushed” the photo to blur their faces, mostly because I didn’t ask the parents’ permission to use it here (they don’t even know I have this blog, so asking to publish their boys with their barbies would have been a bit too complex for bus stop chat) but also because, well, you’ll get that if you read on…

Catching up on links I’d tucked away to read later, I watched this video of Cheryl Strayed, aka Sugar, aka the authoress (adviser-woman-partner-mother-friend) par excellence, in which she recounts the story of one of the experiences of her new-found fame, how a childhood fantasy “came true,” with surprising results. I watched it again with my teenaged daughter, kidnapping her after school. Every woman, every girl, every mother, every daughter should see it, for its brilliant tale of a woman in waiting. OK, so go ahead, don’t wait!

So there she is, waiting for that moment when all is perfect, yet when it arrives she sees that it wasn’t so perfect after all. She puts off doing things because she is not ready, when actually she was ready all along. Surely the boys with their Barbies don’t wait before they dive in, and it made me wonder why girls tend to do so, pulling back, uberconscious of what they are not instead of what they are or what they wish to be.

So now that you’ve watched it, look here, and you will see my connection with the Barbies and the blur.

But wait, there’s more…one more connection slipped in before the day was through when I checked out a new app produced in conjunction with an exhibit at the Met called “Faking It.” It’s about the history of manipulated photography before the digital age. There was one image in particular that screamed out convergence. It was a side-by-side view of a man, whose face on the left is freckled and lined, one eye noticeably larger and droopier than the other. His middle finger is raised as if he were insulting, in a subtle way, the photographer. In the right, retouched image (pre-photoshop, the photo is from 1930), his skin is marble smooth and creamy white, his facial features balanced, the cigarette which hung lazily from his mouth absent. The text which accompanies it says it all.

“Portrait photographers have always struggled with the camera’s maddening accuracy—its obstinate refusal to flatter—and have relied on the skill of retouchers to erase, or at least minimize the appearance of, wrinkles, blemishes, double chins, dull eyes, shiny noses, protruding ears, thick waists, thinning hair, and other unsightly imperfections.”

Did you see that photoshopped image of Ms. Strayed? When I first saw it in Vogue (yes, I do subscribe) I remember doing a double take, staring at it, shocked by its banality, its creepiness… and that was before I even knew how much more lovely the real Cheryl is. Imperfections? Flaws? Surely not. These are the things which distinguish us from everyone else, which make us who we are and not Barbie or Ken or some otherworldly photoshop creation.

Barbie was born in 1959, Vogue began focusing on fashion in the 60’s and 70’s, and Photoshop was released in 1990. So yes, all three of these cultural institutions are partially to blame for the fact that by age seventeen nearly 80% of young girls are unhappy with their appearance. None of this is new, though, and while the beauty distortion has become more pronounced, it appears to be part of our DNA. We’ve all fallen in the trap, and remain without a doubt our own worst critics. Teaching ourselves and those we love to tame the beast which sees only what is wrong and not what is right, what is good, what is healthy, is the only way to counter it.

Above all, sweetpeas, don’t wait for that moment when the planets align and the scale smiles and all is perfection because you will miss everything else along the way. Photoshop your expectations when they get in your way, not your life.

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