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Posts Tagged ‘self-image’

As with many men, a daily shave is part of my morning routine. But I didn’t realize how ingrained the habit was until yesterday. I was up at 6AM, rushing so I could catch the ferry to Gibson’s Landing, when my razor became quieter and quieter then died out altogether, leaving me with one side of my neck and both cheeks unshaved.

The problem wasn’t a social one. My hair is a muddy brown and my skin reddish, so anyone else would have to get within a few centimeters to notice the incomplete shave.  However, so far as my sense of myself went, my half-shaved self was a surprisingly strong violation of my self-image.

The problem was not the idea of a beard, although I’ve never been strongly tempted to grow one, even as a young adult. Admittedly, a few days without shaving leaves me with the impulse to scrape the skin off my cheeks and necks in the hopes of stopping the itching, Then, too, a beard would be high-maintenance compared to being clean-shaven, especially for someone like me for whom sweaty exercise is part of most days, and sooner or later one of my parrots would find it irresistible to pull or climb across.

Nor do I have any desire to add anything to my morning routine that would require me to stare at myself in a mirror just minutes after waking. I simply lack the vanity, and would far prefer using a safety razor while reading.

All the same, I have sometimes toyed with idea of growing a beard. I associate it with ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights, and a few periods of ancient Rome, so I am alive to the romance of facial hair. If I had ever found myself in the usual time-honored circumstances, such as a week long camping trip, I would succumbed to the temptation and endured the skin irritation just to see what I looked like. If nothing else, in my earlier years, I might have been tried the look simply in the hopes of looking my age.

However, under almost any circumstance, I would have shaved off any beard in a matter of days. Even though five o’clock shadow is a problem for me, starting the day clean-shaven matters to me. It is as important a part of personal hygiene to me as having clean and trimmed finger nails. Without either, I am vaguely uneasy just under the surface of consciousness, and haunted by the feeling that I am at disadvantage. My confidence, as flimsy as it is at the best of times, always feels like it is about to buckle and snap unless I am properly shaved.

Unfortunately, yesterday morning I could only endure. I caught my bus, glad it was still dark so my neither-nor state was concealed. Arriving downtown, I was just in time for the start of the Boxing Day sales, and when I missed my connection, I resisted with difficulty the impulse to dart into the nearest department store and buy a razor to use on the ferry.

Somehow, common sense took hold of me. Catching the ferry was more important than my personal preferences, I told myself. The relatives I was going to spend the day with wouldn’t care what I looked like, even if I did. Anyway, it was a holiday, and many men around me hadn’t bothered to shave, although mostly the unshaven were younger than I am, and more obsessed by fashion as well. Never mind that they were trying for a casual elegance and I only felt scruffy.

With a mental grip like an eagle’s talons, I marched self over to the queue, making a point of making eye contact with the driver, the man at the ticket booth, and the servers in the ferry cafeteria. Resisting the urge to lower my head and scurry through the shadows, I willed a firmness to my stride and tried to project an air of confidence as I approached the relative who was picking me on the other side of the water.

Then, after exchanging the greetings of the season, I looked my relative squarely in the eyes. “Can we stop by the drug store?” I asked, with just a hint of a self-pitying whine.

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A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Amanda Palmer concert with a neighbor. He kept worrying that he would be the oldest person there – a concern that never occurred to me, although I am several years older than him. The truth is, working in tech makes me more comfortable with younger people than those my own age, who often seem stodgily suspicious of anything new. However, changing my main online photo tonight forces me to confront the fact that I’m aging, just like everyone else.

Few people, I suspect, can look at their own picture without feeling uncomfortable. Part of the reason is that most people’s self-image is always several years behind their actual age. Another reason is that all of us are most familiar with our mirror images, which of course are reversed. For both these reasons, a picture never looks quite right. The most we can hope for is that any given picture doesn’t make us squirm too much. Personally, I prefer to play the coward, allowing pictures of myself at only long intervals.

Anyway (I always grumble), people take far too many pictures of themselves, thanks to digital cameras. Keep your life undocumented, and at least you can busy yourself with living it. Spending all your time recording is more meta – and more trouble – than I care to for.

Still, I’ve been aware for a couple of years now that my picture needed updating. One of my regular publishers offered to pay for an update, and even that wasn’t enough for me to brave the ordeal of picture-taking. Then I thought I’d wait until I recovered from last year’s knee injury and had some faint whimper of fitness. Eventually, I just put if off, putting off the moment of truth like Kipling’s Queen Elizabeth psyching herself to look into her looking glass.

But today I felt braver than usual. I finally had a neighbor snap a dozen shots against the nearest neutral background. It wasn’t the best time to do so: I’d been several hours out in the sum, so my face was red and blotched. My ears looked as though I had folded them up and used them as a makeshift pillow the previous night. My eyebrows were so pale that most of them were invisible, and the angle of my head makes me look like I have a double-chin and shows that I could do with a shave.

As for the wrinkled neck and piggy eyes, please don’t get me started. I could go on and on – but I see I already have.

Yet, as uncomfortable as the picture makes me, I couldn’t mistake those escaped hairs dangling in the middle of my forehead. But at least my hairline was no higher than in my last picture, and I’ve finally aged enough that my face gives an illusion of character. To me, anyway, I look guarded, maybe politely skeptical. Either seems an improvement over the terminally gormless look of most of the pictures through my life.

I still have no idea how representative the picture is. But, all in all, I could do worse. Before I could change my mind, I updated all my online profiles. I now propose to forget what I look like for another few years, remaining blissfully ignorance of how I am changing and averting my eyes from even the vaguest possibility of a reflection that might confront me with the truth.

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“It was a compliment,’ said Merry Brandybuck,’and so, of course, not true.”
– J. R. R. Tokien, The Lord of the Rings

When I use the exercise bike at the rec center, I mostly keep to myself. After years of running by myself, I just don’t think of exercising as a social occasion. So, I was surprised yesterday when a man in his early twenties approached me as I staggered off the bike and said, “Can I tell you something?”

“Sure,” I said warily, supposing he was about to criticize my technique. In my experience, everyone in the weight room is an expert, and few are reluctant to give you the benefit of their advice.

“You’re a warrior, man!” Then, as I was wondering whether I had heard him right, he said, “I see you running when I go to work. Then, at the end of the day, I see you here on the bike, working your guts out. You’re a warrior, a real warrior!”

I muttered something about just trying to get away from the computer after twelve hours, and sat down at a weight machine, bemused and – if I’m going to be honest – slightly pleased.

When I’m praised (or abused, for that matter), it’s usually for my writing. Most people don’t notice me physically, because I’m heavy-set for my height. I don’t look fit even when I am, and regardless of the fact that I’ve exercised daily since I was in elementary school. So, to be praised for my endurance (which I suppose was what he was saying) is unexpected. Yet, because I’m proud of my endurance, my vanity is tickled to have it acknowledged.

At the same time, I feel uneasy that it was noticed at all. Like many people who are observers, I’m mildly disconcerted to realize that someone has been observing me. I’m not altogether sure that I like it. It’s a bit of role-reversal that I didn’t expect.

Moreover, so far as a warrior-like appearance goes, I’m not exactly a rival to Ghengis Khan, or even someone civilized like Xenophon. Years of reading and keyboard work have taken their toll, and, if random people were asked to describe my face, chances are that many of them would use the word “mild.” Don’t get me wrong – I feel passionately about many causes and people, and I probably have more than my share of self-righteousness. But most of that doesn’t show on my face.

Finding a minute part of me inclined to preen at the compliment, I told myself that I wasn’t one of those middle-aged business executives that need to imagine themselves a samurai warrior to find some meaning in their lives.

Later, it would occur to me both how rare compliments are between hetrosexual men, and how I still don’t know how to receive a compliment from anyone with any dignity or grace.

But, at the time, I could only think:

A warrior?

Me?

Yeah, right.

Shaking my head, I bent to my repetitions with the weight machine.

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