On a recent trip to the city, I saw my reflection in a shop window and didn’t recognise myself. I thought, ‘Who is that old man, striding along in a hurry? He looks like Monsieur Hulot or Mr Bean.’ It was only later, when I passed another shop window, that I realised with a kind of paralysing disturbance that the long-legged sourpuss was me.
It was a shock. I had to take ten deep breaths and have a stiff drink before I could pull myself together again. Until then, I thought I had looked quite dapper in my new outfit and hat. This reality check was enough to make me stop and take stock. My head was spinning. I felt disoriented, as though I’d been dropped into a new body and didn’t know how to use the limbs.
‘This is how the world sees me,’ I thought. ‘This is how I must look every day of my life as I go about my business.’ The unnerving thing was that my physical appearance did not tally at all with the image in my head. I had a dawning realisation that I’d been living a fantasy, a delusion. In my mind’s eye I was an Adonis: tall, slender and handsome, with a full head of hair. But, as my reflection attested, I was a grotesque cartoon character.
Truth be told, I’ve always been alarmed by my appearance and I go to great lengths to avoid being photographed or catching sight of myself in a mirror. It’s a horrible admission. but I can’t stand to look at myself. Some years ago, I burned every photo of myself that had been taken from my late teens onward. More recently I tore myself out of photos in which I’m standing next to my partner of 25 years. When I’m in a department-store change room, trying on trousers or a shirt, my eyes don’t stray from the neck down. I don’t want to see my face. I’m scared of what I’ll see. If the whole point of buying new clothes is to remake or reinvent ourselves, surely a pudding face with jowls and droopy eyes will ruin the sought-after impression.
I know this is all very unhealthy. But I can’t help how I feel. The problem, I believe, is a universal one – I’m sure many agree that the image we have of ourselves is not always commensurate with reality. Some people think they are better looking than they are, while others believe they’re distantly related to the lizards from the TV series V.
The image that resides in one’s head is usually younger – in effect an unsullied child of harmonious, graceful proportions. In the mind, the physical body has never really aged. The feelings and emotions might be, by and large, those of a mature adult. But the body belongs to a golden age of tautness, firmness and suppleness. The pitiable brain, trapped in its casing of bone, has not caught up with reality.
Despite the passage of years, we grow up and grow old without really being aware of it. This is why, suddenly at middle age, we cry with great dismay: ‘When did this happen?’ Obviously when you were out having a great old time and not paying attention. And because our friends and family see this ageing process from the outside and over time, they aren’t perturbed by the gradual transformation. That’s why, when we are startled by the sight of a grey hair, they’re able to reassure us with complete earnestness and confidence, and mean it.
This hit home for me recently on a packed train. As soon as I boarded the carriage a polite young woman lifted her little boy off the seat beside her and placed him on her knee. ‘Give your seat to the man, darling,’ she said. I looked over my shoulder for the senior citizen and realised that she was referring to me. I murmured a polite thanks and settled down with a low moan of despair.
Not long ago, I turned half a century. In my head, I am not at an age that requires people to offer me a seat. Delusional as it sounds, I am a young man. Caught somewhere between 16 and 24. The slight paunch, the greying hair – they will go away if I go to the gym 15 times a week instead of three.
When I got home, I told my partner what had happened. ‘You are a man,’ he said. ‘You’re not 26 anymore and you’ve filled out since I met you.’ That was the nail in the coffin. From here on, I couldn’t masquerade as anything other than a tubby adult.
In a weird contradiction, I’m not afraid of growing older. Why worry about something you can’t change? Can’t do anything about it, except have cosmetic surgery – and even then you end up looking like the Bride of Wildenstein or Katherine Helmond in Brazil.
To further the contradiction, I’m more comfortable in my skin now than I’ve ever been. The thought of going back to the uncertainties and insecurities of my twenties makes me shiver with horror. (Though having the body of a 28-year-old mightn’t be bad on days when the knees play up and the pants feel too tight around the waist.)
‘Youth is wasted on the young,’ Oscar Wilde said, and he should know. I never really understood this observation until I passed my fortieth year, which according to George Bernard Shaw is the old age of youth. To which I add: ‘Youth is simply wasted.’ Before you know it, you’re at the halfway point, and what have you done with said youth? Not much. Too busy being nervous and spotty. I take small comfort in Mae West’s dictum: ‘You are never too old to become younger.’
This probably accounts for why many older people think nothing of shedding their clothing at the first opportunity, while the young keep them nervously on. Admittedly, these confessions might sound odd for an ex-model. Believe it or not, for a short time in my early twenties I was a model. I showcased Italian and Japanese designer clothes with the best of them, which begs the question: what made me parade in front of hundreds of people if I truly believed I was ugly? The only rational answer I can come up with is that there must have been a minute part of me that thought I was handsome enough to qualify for the job. Otherwise I wouldn’t have applied. The other part of me, the tidal wave, maintained I was hideous. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. If I had been grotesque no one would have employed me to peddle expensive clothes on a catwalk. Would they?
Admittedly, I didn’t photograph well. The minute a camera was pointed at me, my face transmogrified into Picasso’s Weeping Woman, eyes all over the place. Thankfully, I was just fine striding up and down a catwalk, looking impossibly glamorous and aloof.
When I examined my fellow mannequins I saw that none were what you would call beautiful people. If anything, we were freakish. Too tall, too thin, extraordinary eyes, high cheekbones, legs long enough to stretch from here to Nubia, skin like milk. Fingers like ET. We wouldn’t have fitted in anywhere else. No one would have us. Youth and an abnormal set of attributes is all we had going for us. That’s why to this day I believe models are abnormal. Society praises their beauty because it is a rare gift bestowed on an individual for a short time. I saw very quickly that all of us had a cross to bear; and, as I got to know my team, not one thought of him or herself as beautiful. We thought we were malformed and yet underneath it all we also believed we had a unique set of attributes that could be bought and sold. We had something going for us. We just didn’t know what it was. We attended Helene Abicair’s modelling classes because we looked for affirmation, belonging, acknowledgement and self-worth. Striking elegant poses was a path to confidence and acceptance. Yet in the back of your mind is the niggling little voice that says, ‘You make Quasimodo look handsome.’
After all that, I’m intrigued by the ever-changing weathervane that is my face. There are days when I can’t stop studying myself in the mirror. It’s not narcissism. It’s a fascination with observing time’s hand on malleable flesh. It’s as if the human form is clay and nature moulds us with hard-won years. How the face changes as one grows older. At the last reckoning, you hardly resemble the person whose body you inhabited for the first twenty or so years. If you do it’s a kind of pale imitation, a ghost of your long-gone youthful self. That’s why in the morning, after a shave, I stare at myself with a detachment that borders on the scientific. ‘Who am I going to look like today?’ If I feel good, I resemble Joe Dallesandro. If I’m feeling shithouse, it’s Julie Bishop.
This masochistic craving to confront the most disquieting aspect of myself extends to photographs. And yet in this day and age having your picture taken is unavoidable. Everyone’s got a camera and they think nothing of pointing it in your face, whether you like it or not. When friends drag out their laptops and launch iPhoto for a preview of the latest party shots, I always cringe and bemoan my hideousness. ‘That’s not true,’ they chide, not realising they’re playing into my hands. ‘Look, here’s a really good one of you.’ ‘That’s not me. That’s the bog man,’ I cry, partly believing it and partly not.
The conclusion I draw from this is that I am equal parts vain and self-effacing. In a secret subterranean chamber of the mind, I draw away from myself with horror and disgust. Who knows how the unconscious works? Maybe you’d hate yourself too if you spent your teenage years in Australia getting bashed on a daily basis and being told it’s because you look like a ‘freaky wog’ or ‘a big poof ’… No wonder I side with the deformed monster in horror films.
But when I come across that rare specimen – a photo where I don’t resemble the Phantom of the Opera unmasked – I cling to it and show it around until people are fed up with seeing it. ‘See, look, I’m normal too.’ In time I’m hoping to gather a small catalogue of passable images that will see me to the end of my days.
Recently, while perusing an old family photo album, I came across a picture of myself that was taken when I was 18 or 19. It had obviously escaped my bonfire of the vanities. I’m sitting on a billiard table, wearing a snappy white and blue zip-up cardigan over a white t-shirt. My eyes are big and soulful, my hair a suitable length for the late seventies, with that crinkle-cut flow I detested. The boy who is and isn’t me is trusting and innocent, and distinctly ethnic. Looking at it, I mused, ‘Gee, I wish I’d been kinder to myself back then…’
By no means am I as ghastly as I thought.
Dmetri Kakmi is a writer and editor. His book Mother Land was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. You can follow him on: dmetrik.blogspot.com.
‘My Face: The Horrors of Reflection’ appears in Issue Six of Kill Your Darlings. Purchase the issue here.
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