March 1, 2013

Narcissism: A Personal History

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My face is a palimpsest. In the mirror, some pure, unwrinkled, unspoiled child-face emerges from beneath a pile of other versions of my face. One version has thick eyebrows; another has nearly nonexistent eyebrows. One is wearing a horrid purple shade of lipstick; another is wearing azure blue eyeshadow. But the child-face hovers, brighter than the faces that followed it in time. It’s inescapable. Due to an amalgamation of bad habits, good habits, bad weather, good weather, bad emotions, good emotions, bad jobs, good jobs, makeup, potions, elixirs, and the greatest element of all, time, we see thousands of versions of our face over the course of our lives. But I think the less secure among us can’t help but see the shy, unassuming child behind every grown-up mask, taunting our adult selves with self-doubt.

For three years in my tweens, I had my own bathroom. I would never have my own bathroom again, and seemed to know this, because I spent a lot of time in there. The mirror went along an entire wall, and this inescapable thing was where I first plucked my eyebrows, where I pierced my own ear while on the phone with a supportive friend, and where I would first try to dye my hair by spraying so much Sun-In haphazardly around my head that the liquid dripped down the sides of my face. As a child, I hadn’t seen the point of a mirror. There was no benefit of being a vain child, as I saw it. With the emergence of (comparatively) substantial crushes around age 10, my female peers and I were suddenly more interested in what we looked like. I remember us all bumbling anxiously toward what we thought were transformative habits: face-washing, leg-shaving, hair-straightening, eyebrow-plucking.

I was bumbling more than most, or so I thought. I was fixated on how pale I was. My skin had only ever been exposed to a few New Jersey summers and London’s perpetual gray shroud. One spring day I decided to cover my legs with a peachy-orange shade of concealer, and just hoped nothing or nobody brushed up against my leg over the course of the school day. I wish I could have reassured my 10-year-old self that some grown women spray liquid foundation from an aerosol can on their legs, but in any case, the shame of my pallor trumped the shame of painting my legs with a beige paste housed in a lipstick tube. A less pale, freckled friend of mine had been using fake tanner on her legs, but I couldn’t ask my mother to buy me this, because it would only draw attention to my lead-footed evolution toward womanhood. So I used what I already had: a Rimmel concealer, which I had bought a few months before to cover my dark, seemingly punched-out undereyes. Needless to say, I had only bought it because some boy had raised his hand to point out my “black eyes” to the rest of our homeroom class.

This same boy once also raised his hand to say, “Ms. Blum, Elizabeth is putting her hair down,” which caused me to redo the ponytail I had just removed and wear a ponytail every day for the next four years. It was only once I moved to Cyprus, thousands of miles away from Kyle’s hawk-eyed attention to detail, that I finally removed the hair tie.

To my adult self, beauty products are an attempt to entertain, to make things more interesting: channel-flipping. If I was going to be honest, I’d say they fill some void that something else — possibly athletic achievement, or maybe cake, since I have celiac — used to fill. As a tween, my first forays into beauty products were an attempt to reduce, erase, deemphasize. In my teens and early twenties, it switched: enhance, magnify, enlarge, highlight. As we age, we regress back to the first method: shrink, cover, hide. I recently entered this new phase. Most women know from harrowing glances in the mirror near the end of a long, poorly-lit night that it’s best to gradually strip makeup down as the years, and our faces, wear on.

At eleven, when I came face-face-face with myself in my private bathroom (keyword “private”: a way to explore vanity without being witnessed), I saw mostly flaws (though I also saw the possibilities of an un-ponytailed head of hair). Once down, my hair became a subject of scrutiny once again, this time mine. Its color was too bland. It was neither the shiny black of the Cypriot girls, nor the blonde of my sister and seemingly every other young person in my family, the kind of blonde that a colorist could turn white without fearing they would burn the hair clear off. But I took a risk and happily learned that under the blazing Cyprus sun, just two thousand miles north of the Equator, Sun-In had the power to bypass the frightening orange phase between brunette and blonde. It helped that I spent about 10 hours of every summer day in a swimming pool. In the pool, the point seemed to be to stand out, despite the fact that I would not be able to talk to a boy for at least another two years. I wanted to be able to communicate with them physically from a distance. I think this is one definition of self-consciousness.

My early beauty education came from three magazines: Seventeen, which in Cyprus cost the equivalent of about $9.00, and two British magazines: Sugar and Bliss.How to describe these last two magazines? Sugar was fun, and Bliss was sexy. Each was far sexier than Seventeen. None of these magazines seemed really for me until I met my friend Rebecca, a veritable connoisseur of beauty products who is now, not surprisingly, a fashion designer. On day one of our friendship, she pulled me into the bookstore at the Hilton, where our families had pool memberships, to check them out. My interest in beauty turned from passive to voracious.

Seventeen Magazine September 1995

It hadn’t seemed like twelve-year-old girls needed anything to replace their doll collections, now stuffed in a trunk in the basement, but with beauty products it suddenly became clear that we did. Rebecca’s bathtub was lined with shampoos, conditioners, leave-in treatments, shower gels and bubble baths, so much that you could barely step into the thing. How long could one go living in Rebecca’s house without using the same shampoo twice? Possibly a month. At my house, there was just Pantene, and it was probably a combination shampoo and conditioner.

The edge of Rebecca’s bathtub wasn’t enough for her; we needed to expand. We combined forces to buy a container of bright blue gel, the consistency and color of jello shots, but more bubble-filled, which was used to treat, of all things, cellulite. We bought conditioner made of bananas. We bought nail polishes, blush, self-tanning oil, fake tanning spray, leave-in conditioner, black mascara, clear mascara, lipliner, lipstick, night cream, eyelash curlers, eyebrow pencils, t-zone acne-fighting gel for our non-existent acne, white musk perfume, face masks, exfoliators, bubble bath, bath salts, hair removal cream — basically every type of product ever listed in any those three magazines that was also available to us islanders, who resided thousands of miles away from the nearest Rimmel or Garnier factory. Before Cyprus became part of the European Union, we felt towards England the way I imagine some Canadians feel about America. We would constantly be seeing ads for products that we couldn’t actually buy, something the Canadian author Sheila Heti also spoke of in an interview last year. Advertisements have a stronger appeal when they’re selling products that are unavailable.

This, despite the total shallowness and pointlessness of our amassed collection of liquids, creams and “pastes,” as airport security calls them, represented a total awakening for me. It might go too far to say that beauty products made me happier, but they indicated there were other things in life I could care about and be interested in besides my usual suspects (the violin, which I was mediocre at playing, books, academics, school musicals, and sports, which I was also mediocre at playing). They presented another way of looking at things, least of which was my face, since the effect of these potions is mostly illusory. Who can really tell the difference between one mascara and the next? But it feels different. That difference is encouraging. Beauty, in the metonymic, commercial sense of the word, was initially not about acquisition, or possession, or pampering, for me, but about changing the scenery, tending to it and, yes, improving upon it, however slightly.

After this fruitful period of beautifying and face-poisoning, I moved to London, where my instinct was, as it had been before, to hide. I was in the same school I had begun school in, where I had more or less thrived from the ages of six to eleven, if you don’t count the bullying from Kyle. The chairs and tables were the same. The building smelled the same, a pleasant mixture of carpet cleaner and eternally warming cafeteria food. The building still had four departments designated by color-coded staircases: red, blue, yellow, green. Kyle was still there.

Without my product-toting friend, I was lost again. I couldn’t be the way we’d been here. I couldn’t spend an afternoon with her watching three showings of Clueless in a row and then going home to try on clothes and recite the movie’s script. At my new school, the throng of anonymous faces seated — imperiously, I thought — at the cafeteria’s round tables, oblivious of me, or else looking me up and down, seemed to be speaking by way of their disinterest: I couldn’t wear makeup, they said. I couldn’t dress in a way that attracted attention.

I was never going to be the kind of person who could tune out other people’s opinions. I realized this then. I wasn’t interested in action, in waiting for a reaction; I reacted. For the last stretch of eighth grade, thrown in with this strange mix of smoking, drinking, pierced, showily made-up and promiscuous peers, I wore a revolving uniform of colored v-neck Topshop or H&M t-shirts and jeans, t-shirts being the only Topshop items I could afford. I wore a cheap black Rimmel eyeliner, a trivial lipgloss, the ever-important concealer for my purple undereyes, and some eyeshadow in dark green or purple. I plucked my eyebrows down to lines barely thicker than a piece of thread. You are what you eat, and you are also, at this age, what you do to your face.

Gradually new friends, new influencers, emerged in my life, giving me permission to act. Of course, it would have been great if I’d realized that I didn’t need anyone’s permission to exist, to appear. But their solidarity greenlighted my confidence, to such a degree that my tween self hardly recognized the person in my ninth grade student ID photo. It looked like a mugshot: long yellowish-white blonde hair with light brown roots; a chain around my neck that looked like a dog’s choke chain; a white v-neck t-shirt. My eyes, intentionally, were barely open, like I was sneering at the photographer — my captive audience. I had wanted to seem more brave than vulnerable. School photographs allowed us a more permanent statement, a document to show others to prove our potential as cool, as pretty, as sexy. In the days before Facebook, we only had school photos, ID photos, and yearbook photos. They were so crucial because they couldn’t be changed for a year. They presented our peers with our ultimate self, or tried to. Now kids have the power to reinvent themselves every day, from behind their computer. It is harder, but it is much more fun, to reinvent yourself in the physical presence of others.

In the years I’d been gone, Kyle’s antics turned from cruel to mildly flirtatious, possibly because our shared class, Literature of the Holocaust, needed some comic relief. Again, it was only these little signals from others that spurred me. I could not do much on my own. Nothing even remotely happened between us, and I didn’t want it to, but little shifts in others gave way to little shifts in me. There was more variety to the things I wore and put on my face. I would wear skirts. I would wear a lipgloss that didn’t exactly match the color of my lips. I would find more visual ways, as opposed to silent, academic ways, to make my presence known. I learned to stop hanging back, pressed into the background as if two-dimensional, quiet and unnoticed, with a crackling voice and a tendency to hide behind hair and giant books.

There is nothing wrong with this approach to school; a teenage life of few distractions can make for a shining academic record. But I was only going to find my way, to discover things I loved, if I was not afraid of being seen. There is also, of course, a thrill that comes from being seen, appreciated, or even judged. I wouldn’t realize this until I tried it.

One day in ninth grade I wore a fairly conspicuous outfit, for my standards: three-inch velvet baby doll shoes with a black dress, white tights and dark red lipstick, like some honorary member of the Smashing Pumpkins. A model in the grade above me — a model, no less — described me as “Ethiopian” as I walked by her in the cafeteria. But I was learning to prefer criticism over silence. If not in the moment, then eventually. TC mark

Liz Colville

Liz is a writer based in New York City. She has written for The San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Pitchfork, New York

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