It’s fitting that today’s Daily Post prompt is “Illusion,” because I’ve been mulling over the inaccuracy of my physical projection for a while now, and was thinking that I’d like to try to write about it today if my brain allowed. For the last ten years or so, I have been struggling with not looking like myself. It’s difficult to explain – maybe impossible, I don’t know. It’s not tied into what I wish I looked like, or even when I think I could look like with some hard work or plastic surgery. Those are both normal feelings that I also experience. This third thing is something separate. It’s more a feeling of knowing what I look like, then looking in the mirror and being surprised (and sometimes horrified, though mostly just irritated) to see that the person staring back at me is not me, at all. For awhile now, I’ve wondered if it’s a mild form of body dysmorphia, and since I do have a couple of other anxiety-related OCD symptoms that all started roughly around the same time, it fits my overall pattern. Eventually, I’ll need to talk to a therapist, but first I’ll write this blog post.
The best way I can explain what happens to me is this: imagine that you’re Joseph Gordon Levitt, and you’re used to seeing your boyishly handsome JGL face every day when you look in the mirror:
Then one day, you wake up, look in the mirror, and see this:
You’re obviously still you, but not you, too. It’s disconcerting (also, one of the reasons that I just couldn’t get comfortable enough with Looper to love it the way that everyone else seemed to). Imagine that this happens all the time. Some days you’re you, other days you’re a version of you. Sometimes this shifts over the course of the day, or an hour, or between glances in the mirror while you’re brushing your teeth in the morning. In an effort not to lose your mind, you learn over time to not get too attached to your face, and move on with life.
Then one day, you realize that this phenomenon has begun to extend into the rest of your life. Suddenly, it isn’t just an simple illusion over which you have no control, but some other, more insidious kind of spell, gradually wiping out the you that is and replacing it with a cut-rate, bargain basement you costume. But this doesn’t shift or change. Your body isn’t the shape it used to be. It’s apparent in the mirror, and to the touch, and in the way you move. Your chosen plumage changes to accommodate, and is chosen out of necessity, rather than whimsy. Necklines get higher, hems get longer, shoes get shorter, pants get stretchier. Suddenly, people start calling you “ma’am” and even though you’re not a matron, you begin to feel like one. Now when you look in the mirror, that ever-shifting face has one aspect that has stopped changing – the light behind your eyes has dimmed.
If you’re still reading and over 35, this might sound familiar, because I’ve moved on from talking about body dysmorphia to a more common shared experience – the intersection of age and complacency. From where I’m sitting, it looks like there are three general paths to image as we age. There are those lucky few who stay in touch with themselves and continue to find fashion that fits their lives and personality. There are those who grasp at straws, wearing things that no longer work for the time or their personality – these people give off the impression of always wearing a costume, even if the costume is quite bland. And then there’s the rest of us poor schlubs, confused and tired, often wearing something that fits our bodies, but not our spirits.
At some point in the last three years, I decided that the outer appearance I had been attempting to cultivate no longer matched who I was, and I stopped wearing pin-up dresses and high heels. (Just the thought of those things makes me uncomfortable, honestly – who was that girl?) But I forgot to keep working to make my outer me match my inner me, and ended up with a closet full of the equivalent of sweat pants. Now it’s not just the mirror that tells me I look terrible. It’s my life. I’m not projecting my authentic self, and no one can see me anymore.
I feel like this is deeper than an age thing, or even a cultural thing. It’s spiritual. It’s magical. Our clothing and jewelry have power. They tell stories, they offer protection, they open up portals for us. There’s a reason it’s called a “power tie,” a “business suit,” a “church crown.” We are not that far removed from our ancestors, buried with sacred amulets and specially-sewn grave clothes. It’s time that I remember this, and follow that thread back to myself.