Mutilation Mile (and the Picture People Who Run It)

I’m a sucker for mirrors.

Sometimes I get caught gazing into one while I’m sitting at a booth in a restaurant. Looking over the person I’m talking to, instead of into their eyes, checking out the guy in the mirror instead. He makes great eye contact.

Narcissist, much? Yeah, but it’s just my luck I’ve got the mirror view from where I’m sitting and you don’t. If you did, you’d be looking at yourself, too.

This isn’t about self love, mind you.

It’s about evaluation.

That place where your invisible inside world collides with the outside world. And you wonder, with dread: What can other people see? What might they think of me?

You and I aren’t so dissimilar, and so when I tell you there are days when I think the guy on the other side of the glass is a charming stud, you’ll no doubt agree. Sometimes Mirror Me is a hunk! Phew!

But other times?

Ugh, other times mirror me is this sort of emaciated, bad haired, dark eyed, scrawny scarecrow man. Chicken legs supporting a pot belly. Pubic stubble camouflaging pink zits.

To get through those times (sludgy times), I decide I should probably do some kind of moving. Some people might call the moving I do exercising, but between you and me, it’s really Just Moving.

Moving just enough to get my heart pumping, to get my little muscles to tighten, to squirt off a little handful of endorphins into my brain. Enough to cut through the sludge and remember: Hey! I like how I look. What am I working up a sweat for?

We communicate through social media now, and mostly that’s just pictures, instagrammed and prettified . Real-Life, Breathing, Farting You doesn’t stand a chance. It’s a losing fight. Picture People will drag you down into the mud and slide a knife between your ribs.

This, followed closely by my subconscious voice: You’re exercising because it is healthy. You don’t want to die soon, do you?

Back to happier voice: Yeah, but I think I look okay again. I exercised a little bit, so aren’t I good? I’m sure my heart and my muscles and Future Me appreciate the effort. Can’t I lay down on the couch now and drink a beer and inhale a small bowl of Fritos?

Other voice: No! You should feel bad because you are lazy! That’s the reason you are scrawny! You might not feel bad now because, for some reason, you’ve decided you look okay, but it will not last! You will feel bad again, and the only reason you won’t is if you start exercising NOW! Exercise more and become less lazy!

And I won’t feel bad when you feel bad again, the voice continues, not next time. Oh no! No sympathy from me! Because I told you to exercise, and you watched a whole hour of Maury instead.

I mean, that panicky, motherly side of my personality kind of has a point: I can’t really feel bad for myself if I think I look bad, because I know what I have to do to fix it.

And I guess that’s it, right there, lurking in that sentence. The sticking point. The thorn that makes all of this so uncomfortable to me.

The key phrase: “fix it”. Because when I’m feeling bad, I think I need to “fix it”. And when I’m confident, I think, “Fix what?”

When I feel bad, I’ve been looking at a lot of pictures. Magazines, television, internet. In my pictures, I look like a drug fiend on the wrong side of a mugshot. In other peoples’ pictures (celebrities mostly), I see clear skin, sunshine, Olympic sex, good hair. I can’t compete with picture people. Lighting, make-up, photoshop: these are the knives and grenades that mean most of us can’t compete in a battle with picture people. Even if we know our “good side”. Even if we know which way to tilt our head. Even if we’ve practiced our “picture smile” so often it becomes muscle memory.

We’re handicapped by that more insidious weapon: self-criticism.

Ever notice how, when you take a picture with a group, you zero in on yourself first? And based on a sliding scale of sexy you apply to just one person (you), you decide if it’s a “good picture” or not for the whole group?

Maybe you don’t do that. I do. I’ve chosen pictures of groups up to twelve people and decided “it was a good picture!” for all of us based on the contours of my hair alone.

(This is confession and warning: Don’t let me pick the group pictures).

Real Life sort of levels the playing field. If you ever meet a celebrity in real life, the first thing you’ll notice is that they look like…you. Sort of. You can see veins under their skin. Lines in their face (those pesky, sometimes unwanted gifts from life). They breath and have smells.

Comparing yourself to people in real life? Unhealthy, but a fairer fight.

Comparing Real Life You to someone in a Picture? I mean, you’re gonna do it, because you (and me) swallow media like it’s candy. We communicate through social media now, and mostly that’s just pictures, instagrammed and prettified . Real-Life, Breathing, Farting You doesn’t stand a chance. It’s a losing fight. Picture People will drag you down into the mud and slide a knife between your ribs.
The worst part about all this is that our lack of self confidence isn’t necessarily an accident. There aren’t a lot of people standing around (on street corners, or in cyberspace, or on television) telling you that you’re alright the way you are. I mean, they’re there, but they’re normally selling you something: self-help. Day-time therapy. Empowerment. Goals that can only be achieved by reading their book or donating to their church.

That thing they’re selling is the antidote. Everyone else is selling you the disease: that you aren’t alright. That you’re fat. That you’re skinny. Tall. Rough skinned. Bad complexion. Poor teeth. Bald (eek!)

In fact, their antidote is based on (and profits off of) that original disease.

And that disease is propogated through pictures.

These Picture People? In movies, on magazines? They’re selling you something, and not just the cute sweater they’re wearing, or the perfectly bleached jeans they’re sporting. It isn’t even necessarily the movie they’re hawking. They’re selling you their confidence, their moxy, their swagger. They’re saying, “I’m a worthwhile person on the inside. I was chosen because I’m worthwhile. And you know how you can tell? Because of how I look on the outside!” You could be like them. Worthwhile and stuff. I mean, if you looked more like them. And how do they look? Definitely not like you.

Not unless you melt your skin to eliminate your pours. Pull out your veins. Crush magic fairies into your hair so that their glittery blood brings it to life. Paint your teeth white, cut off your belly, peel off your scars, pluck out all the hair on your body, and then smile! Like Cinderella’s sisters slicing off their toes to fit into a shoe that was never meant for them in the first place.

That’s how this works. Your psychological torment has a direct dollar bill ratio, so some joker in a suit can take your money and sell you something you don’t need, to make you look a little bit more like someone you don’t know, so that you can feel a confidence that won’t last, because what they’re selling you has already changed, and if it hasn’t, your body surely has. It has to live in the real world, unfortunately. You can’t make the land of photoshopped pictures your zip code.

And even if you could, don’t you worry that when you got their, they’d roll their eyes and sigh and say, “There goes the neighborhood?”

Wouldn’t you feel, somehow, that they’d be right? That you don’t deserve to be there in the first place?
Well, you shouldn’t feel that way, because “there” doesn’t exist. It’s as shallow and transparent as the message they’re selling. It’s quite alright here on the real world, actually. #NoFilter can speak less to the skill of the photographer, and more to the fact that the world looks pretty good without being all gussied up. And so do you.

Even still, chalking up confidence to how you look isn’t fair, and it isn’t smart. Chances are, you really don’t have a clue how you actually look to other people.

When I’m not feeling confident, it’s most likely because there are other problems in my life. These are not necessarily related to my looks. It’s true that how I feel about myself will most likely impact how I think I look.

But God, you could go crazy trying to “fix” yourself. Trying to look how you think you should look (or have to look) to be attractive for other people, and maybe if they found you attractive, you’d allow yourself to think you were attractive, too. Maybe your attractiveness could get you attention, like it does for those Picture People.

Maybe attention is the same thing as love.

You know, when I was a kid, I actually believed looking ugly was cool?

I thought I looked ugly, and I loved that. I wanted to look more ugly! I wanted some kind of awful scar that pulled the skin back from my face and revealed the glistening muscle underneath. I adored the scars left from surgeries and accidents. I hated acne, but that’s because it wasn’t the right kind of ugly. I guess I was thinking “cinematic ugly” which is never truly ugly the way acne is, because acne is just plodding, mundane, high school ugly.

The things we find ugly, by the way, are mostly ugly because we think they are mundane. And mundane things, frankly, don’t get you attention.

To bring this beast in a full circle, I think I only exercise because I want it to bring me positive attention, but I wish I did it for other reasons.

Reasons like finding joy in exploring your body. Exploring the limits it possesses. Pushing those limits, interacting with and navigating the world around you is the only possession you’ll ever actually own. Exercising as celebration (and, barring that, at least exercising for health, for living a longer life).
Instead of exercising as a form of aggressive self-mutilation.

I fear sometimes that’s what exercise is.

An expression of, “I hate myself, and want to cut off this part.”

I want to sculpt myself, as an artist does, with knives, with blades, toning and cutting away the offending stuff. Wanting to become somebody different, if not just on the outside.

And I understand the impulse to make sure the house you live in on the outside matches the personality you’ve got caged up on the inside. I get that. I get tattoos, I get scarification, I get body modification, I get plastic surgery. I get exercise.

But there is a point. An invisible line, somewhere, where it’s no longer about healthy transformation, or grounds-keeping, or the joy of reinventing a “fixer-upper”.

There is a point where you almost want to wreck the car just to get the insurance.

I don’t know that I even understood there could be a kind of joy to exercising until recently, when I was doing it with the right people, and learning to understand that it can be its own hobby, its own worthwhile activity. That it can actually be the first step to feeling comfortable in the skin you live in, not because of the results, but because of the process.

Exercising, when it’s good, is like taking the wheel for the first time. Learning what your machine is truly capable of.

But when it’s bad…it’s all about driving as fast as you can, because you think the car needs a new paint job (and body job, and nose job), and when you’re driving reckless like that, you might just hit a guard rail and ruin the whole thing.

There is no point to this, only a thought: That when I exercise, I want to do so because I enjoy it. Celebratory.

Not shamefully, not self-destructively, not with impossible nascent goals.
Exercise as performance art: “The Joy of Being Alive.”

“Taking My Body For a Spin!”

It shouldn’t be fueled by self hate. Not hounded by a phantom army of picture people.
Waiting to kill you with their perfect smiles. Their gorgeous bodies. Their plastic teeth.
And then, once you’re dead enough, they’ll start taking all your money, too.

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