Me My­self & My Mir­ror

Hello Mr. Magazine - - ME MYSELF & MY MIRROR - text by Jaime Woo pho­tos by Joseph Alexan­der

Three years ago, I lived by my­self for the first time.

Pre­vi­ously, I had had a suc­ces­sion of room­mates in apart­ments across Toronto, and, be­fore that, I had been at my par­ents’ house in the sub­urbs. There had been noth­ing wrong with my most re­cent room­mates, aside from be­ing on dif­fer­ent sched­ules: they worked nine-to-fives and I, as a writer, pre­ferred ir­reg­u­lar hours. I would work late when the still of the night pro­vided the most ac­cess to cre­ativ­ity and then try to sleep in, but most morn­ings I’d be awo­ken by the roar of a hair dryer and buzz of a blender.

I moved to a less-es­tab­lished part of Toronto and man­aged to find a small house to rent at a ridicu­lous dis­count. In my new space, I could work un­til when­ever I wanted and not worry about the im­pact upon any­one else. Dishes could pile up, laun­dry could be done con­tin­u­ously, and I could awake at noon with­out dis­tur­bance.

The big­gest ad­just­ment was go­ing from one pri­vate space – the bed­room – to an en­tire pri­vate prop­erty. One thing I quickly re­al­ized was a con­sid­er­able gap in in­te­rior de­sign skills. I went to school for engineering, but while you might imag­ine that would make me tidy and pre­cise it in­stead meant I was more prag­matic and ef­fi­cient. Why, for in­stance, fold and store laun­dry when it has to be taken out to be worn any­how? Bet­ter to leave them in large, al­beit clean, piles await­ing the next wear­ing.

I missed the memo on what peo­ple needed in­side liv­ing spa­ces, hav­ing pre­vi­ously been blessed with ta­lented room­mates who’d take up the slack. This meant ba­sic things other apart­ments had I would be miss­ing, and so, for nearly a year, I lived with­out essen­tially ever look­ing into a mir­ror.

My new space had two wash­rooms (I know, right?) and the one I pre­ferred hadn’t been fur­nished with a wall mir­ror. Since I couldn’t be both­ered to find one – let alone in­stall it – I just lived with­out. Brush­ing teeth, wash­ing face, and get­ting dressed could all be ac­com­plished re­flec­tion­less – only when I needed to shave would I drag my­self in front of the sole mir­ror in my place.

You might imag­ine that such a setup would be frus­trat­ing, but it was the op­po­site. It was ab­so­lutely lib­er­at­ing. It didn’t hap­pen im­me­di­ately, rather it slowly crept up upon me the way, for ex­am­ple, some­one im­mersed in a new cul­ture grad­u­ally ac­crues the lan­guage be­fore re­al­iz­ing they can speak it flu­ently. Where once I equated see­ing my­self as some form of self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion, phys­i­cally see­ing my re­flec­tion a link to know­ing my­self, now I rec­og­nized it as more of an an­chor.

With­out the mir­ror, there were fewer sub­con­scious re­minders of the dis­tance be­tween my­self and the cul­tural stan­dard of beauty, those nag­ging thoughts that crit­i­cize and put us down even when we should know bet­ter. Teeth not white enough. Skin not clear enough. Arms too flabby. Chest too pale. Stom­ach too paunchy. The list can be end­less, and ev­ery­day there ap­pears to be some new way for us to hate our­selves.

Re­cently, I saw an ad for a teeth whiten­ing ser­vice that subtly threat­ened women that a lit­tle yel­low­ing could mean miss­ing out on the love of their lives. How fucked up is that? As tri­fling as that ad might be, the mes­sages we al­low in un­doubt­edly change us. Along with jet­ti­son­ing the mir­ror, I also con­sumed fewer im­ages from the me­dia, where the sig­nals were ridicu­lously pri­mal: mus­cu­lar bod­ies that serve to both tit­il­late and leave us want­ing.

Of course I want to see the hot dude, even if he’s just chill­ing – and more so when he is in­ter­twined with another hot dude. But if the mir­ror was the feed­back gauge for how I com­pared to the ideal, a ther­mome­ter of sorts, then the me­dia was the fuel for my in­se­cu­rity, pro­vid­ing ever glossier, more beau­ti­ful im­ages of young, thin men. This was hap­pi­ness. This was sat­is­fac­tion.

I thought I was im­mune to the in­creas­ingly toxic dosages of cor­po­real rep­re­sen­ta­tion (as I’m sure many oth­ers are). I was too smart, too clever, too self-aware. But then why did I treat my­self so dis­mis­sively, so cru­elly if I was un­af­fected? I thought I could en­joy re­spon­si­bly, to adopt the lan­guage of al­co­hol ad­ver­tise­ments, but I was drunk with­out even know­ing it. The me­dia re­treat acted as a re­boot for my self-im­age, a cleanse.

There ap­pears to be a des­per­ate need for such cleanses. While straight men face sim­i­lar pres­sures to be thin or mus­cu­lar, in stud­ies, the pres­sure ap­pears more pro­nounced for gay men. One re­ported that gay men were 50% more likely to hy­po­thet­i­cally give up a year of liv­ing in or­der to ob­tain a “per­fect” body, men lit­er­ally will­ing to die for de­sir­abil­ity.

There have been many the­o­ries posit­ing why gay male cul­ture ap­pears so en­tranced by the mus­cu­lar form, and, like most cul­tural phe­nom­ena, the truth is that each one likely acts as a par­tial fac­tor. My fa­vorite is that the re­la­tion­ship be­tween gay men is pri­mar­ily found upon phys­i­cal at­trac­tion, the de­sire for same-sex in­ter­ac­tions is the most com­mon thread aside from all be­ing iden­ti­fied as male. It isn’t a stretch to sug­gest that the value many gay men feel within the com­mu­nity is teth­ered to their sex­ual cur­rency, es­pe­cially given that the broader gay pop­u­la­tion is bro­ken down into smaller seg­ments based on sex­ual iden­ti­ties – for in­stance, the leather or daddy com­mu­ni­ties.

Gay men use blan­ket as­sess­ments of per­son­al­ity traits to guess each other’s sex­ual po­si­tions – how does a top act? A bot­tom? – and it very much con­cretizes the no­tion that our worth and our iden­tity are both tied up in our abil­ity to be de­sir­able. This may be the main sep­a­ra­tion be­tween gay and straight men in terms of body im­age, with the lat­ter hav­ing the per­mis­sion to em­body a va­ri­ety of iden­ti­ties, sex­u­al­ity be­ing just one tranche of a heav­ily stacked tower.

And yet, the straight male and what he rep­re­sents is in­ter­twined in the gay cul­ture’s sense of self. When we think about body im­age, we can­not and should not dis­sect it in iso­la­tion, as the per­cep­tion of at­trac­tive­ness has much over­lap with the so­cial con­struc­tion of mas­culin­ity. Let’s call it the “masc” cho­rus: even in the other sub­cul­tures some­times ar­gued as less body fas­cist, like the bear or bare­back sub­cul­tures, we still see re­flected in their pornog­ra­phy an ad­her­ence to con­ven­tional ideas of mas­culin­ity.

It is this drive to be as manly as pos­si­ble that grips many in our cul­ture. We see it in the ad­ver­tise­ments, on Grindr, and in the clubs. I have seen it in gay men that have grown beards and po­lice one another to quell their in­ner sissies, be­cause af­ter all we know that fairies can’t truly be real. This is why the bat­tle over our bod­ies is more im­por­tant than some un­der­stand: the truth is that we are not just try­ing to re­shape our­selves phys­i­cally but psy­cho­log­i­cally too.

What’s heart­break­ing is that the rhetoric used to en­cour­age gay kids to come out, that they are free to be them­selves, is coun­tered by the fact that sex­ual vi­a­bil­ity pre­scribes to any­thing but in­di­vid­u­al­ity. A young boy ex­plor­ing his sex­u­al­ity by look­ing at the iconog­ra­phy of porn might rec­og­nize that the very roles sex­u­al­ized are the ones he is at­tempt­ing to break free from around him. Why do we scrap the wis­dom that al­lure comes from a com­fort within one’s skin?

Nat­u­rally, there are ex­cep­tions, but that we rush to raise them up as bea­cons against the prob­lem­atic parts of the cul­ture then only acts as re­in­force­ment of the rule. With our cur­rent mob men­tal­ity on body im­age, there are tan­gi­ble rea­sons to fol­low, rather than buck, the trend. There is more sex to be had by con­form­ing.

One only needs to look at apps like Grindr and Scruff to see how hard the line is that men must fol­low: how rare is it to see a shirt­less torso of a man with­out a lean or mus­cu­lar physique? Pro­files ask for real men, as if men do not come in all shapes and sizes. Th­ese apps with their hun­dreds of pro­files act as tiny mir­rors re­flect­ing back to us who we should look like and how far away we are from that ideal.

We are given very lit­tle con­text as to th­ese men:

how did they find the time or en­ergy to achieve such a body –it surely isn’t easy. And yet si­mul­ta­ne­ously it is easy to not care, since the in­tended en­coun­ters are but tem­po­rary, and th­ese men can be ca­su­ally ob­jec­ti­fied, com­mod­i­fied, and con­sumed, as if Grindr were but a gi­ant vend­ing ma­chine filled with junk food. Ev­ery time I open one of th­ese hookup apps there it is, a solid wall of ab­dom­i­nal mus­cles, taunt­ing me: do you want in or out? And if I wanna get laid, do I have a choice?

When we worry about how our cur­rency within the gay cul­ture will floun­der with­out the ide­al­ized body, many of us as­sume there is no other op­tion but to look like what a par­tic­u­lar sub­cul­ture finds de­sir­able. But is it true only be­cause all of us buy into that con­ceit? Part of what frus­trates me about this con­ver­sa­tion is the monochro­matic view of value, the as­sess­ment of self-worth based on our sex lives: I am what I fuck. Af­ter all, isn’t this from where the fas­tid­i­ous com­mit­ment to body im­age stems?

Mau­vaise foi. It means “bad faith” and was how French philoso­pher Jean-Paul Sartre de­scribed the trap we can fall un­der when we be­lieve that we are out of op­tions due to the fear of what mak­ing a choice could mean. It is some­times more com­fort­ing to be­lieve that we have no choice, no au­ton­omy, but to go with the flow, even when go­ing with the flow, let­ting our­selves get pulled by the cur­rent, is ob­vi­ously an op­tion.

I of­ten think about the dif­fer­ences be­tween in­di­vid­ual and sys­temic val­ues. The for­mer in­form the lat­ter, and while the sys­tem can be slow to change, it shouldn’t dis­suade us from chang­ing our own views first. If only we spent as much time think­ing about what we re­ally want and the qual­i­ties that we be­lieve bring us value as we did wor­ry­ing about our weight, we would see that we have many choices. Even if we don’t – can’t? – change the im­ages that we see, ex­pand­ing our idea of self-worth is the bet­ter bat­tle to tackle.

There’s more to life than fuck­ing. It’s al­most taboo to say within the gay cul­ture be­cause it acts as such a piv­otal frame­work for our lives. There’s an equiv­a­lency that if you are no longer fuck­ing, you might as well not ex­ist. I’m not say­ing that fuck­ing is bad nor that we should not have fuck­ing as a mean­ing­ful com­po­nent of our lives – I am say­ing that bal­ance is key here.

When I do look at a mir­ror, there are so many things I’m not think­ing about that are im­por­tant, that make me feel good about my­self. I’m not ap­pre­ci­at­ing my pas­sion for learn­ing new things. I’m not re­flect­ing on the sup­port­ive fam­ily and friends I have. I’m not giv­ing my­self a lit­tle boost for mov­ing my ca­reer a tiny step closer in the right di­rec­tion. Why do I only see cer­tain shades of my­self in the re­flec­tion? Af­ter all, plac­ing all our worth into our looks is a down­hill bat­tle. It’s not just that we all age and that at some point we must come to terms with the fal­li­bil­ity of our bod­ies, but also, in the present, it is a slip­pery slope. There will al­ways be a guy who is fitter, buf­fer, hot­ter than you, and the more we all try, the higher the bar goes.

On one hand, this seems like a net pos­i­tive: Hey, ev­ery­one gets hot­ter! But whether we can af­ford all those re­sources go­ing into this sin­gu­lar mind­set is worth a pause. How many guys are us­ing steroids to get more mus­cu­lar, and why don’t we ever stop to won­der how we got to the point that that was nec­es­sary?

I ask a lot of ques­tions, and, in the end, I don’t have nearly enough an­swers. But I have to ask those ques­tions any­how if not to at least crowd out the ones that pop into my head when I de­cide whether or not to eat dessert or when the pants I love fit a bit too snugly. I don’t buy into the idea that healthy body im­age means let­ting any­thing fly, but I think it’s im­por­tant to ad­vo­cate for show­ing off our beauty in­side as much as we do on the out­side.

Even if we don’t – can’t? – change the im­ages that we see, ex­pand­ing our idea of self-worth is the bet­ter

bat­tle to tackle.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.