The Facade of Perfection
And the appearance of truth
Back when I still had my old corporate job, I routinely encountered women who inspired stomach-churning insecurity and envy as I commuted to work with sleepy eyes and underwhelming clothing. They were those women who get on the train first thing in the morning with flawless makeup, impeccably tailored outfits, perfect hair and an aura of affluent success. I have never been one of these women.
I can count on one hand the number of times I put on makeup before work, and all but one of those times was because a man was in my house and we were leaving together and God forbid he saw my morning, makeup-free-face in the harsh light of the trains and day. My thing was to always put on makeup right before I left work in the early evening. I would claim it was a sort of feminist stance, but really it had more to do with not being a morning person and not feeling like my job ever deserved that much superficial effort. Outfits were one thing — I was always willing to put in more of an effort there because I understood the effects of dressing the part, or in my case, at least making the attempt. But I'd be damned if I was also going to put makeup on and really buy into the notion that looking good and professional also meant painting my face. Ok I guess it was also a bit of a feminist stance.
I started reflecting on these implications of appearance and the existence of these magic women the other day, while I was walking west on Houston Street. There are a number of popular bars on the block I found myself on, and magic-women encounters are common. However, I'm now speaking of a slightly different type — the going-out-type, the "ladies who clutch". Amidst the bridge and tunnel girls and barely legals, there is a type of woman who carries a clutch as her purse when going out, and she is the evening equivalent of the impeccable business commuter.
Picture the clutch if you will: strap-free, minimal, flat, chic. How brave and non-alcoholic must you be to trust yourself carrying a bag with no straps? How do you keep track of it? Where do you put flats to rescue your feet from high heels? Where do you put anything bigger than a wallet and phone and single key for your home? This simple bag, in all it's teeny tiny glory, is a demonstration to the world that you have your life together — there is literally no room for baggage. Thus "ladies who clutch" has become my shorthand for the easy-breezy image of perfection conveyed so immediately by these magic women striding confidently down the street with the smallest of handbags tucked beneath their arms.
As a recovering alcoholic and drug addict I may be more susceptible to envy given how frequently I was either too hungover in the morning or too drunk at night to maintain myself the way these ladies do. But maybe not. After all, I have been sober for nearly six years, most of that time while I was working in corporate America, and not once did I ever doll myself up perfectly before work or carry a clutch when I went out at night.
This may all seem like desire to live a more superficial life, one where a much larger chunk of my time is spent on my outsides, and technically this is true. What is more true, is that I just want to be and feel like that someone who has their life together. Sometimes I enjoy and embrace my messy self, but other times, like this topsy turvy-whats-going-to-happen-next-time, it's really tough, nearly impossible. Maybe if I managed to appear as though I've got my life together then I would actually get my life together. Am I dreaming?
The logical answer is yes; all outward appearances involve illusion and smoke and mirrors. I am not so blinded by the look of things that I've forgotten that these women are still human beings and surely suffer jealousy and insecurity, as we all do. Nothing is perfect no matter how much it might look perfect. And let's be even more honest, surely some of those "ladies who clutch" get drunk and leave their chic little bag at the bar or in the cab or on the back of the toilet after blowing lines, just like I always feared I would.
However another argument can be made that I am in fact, not dreaming. Media management of daily life blurs the lines of facade and authenticity to the point that fantasy has become reality. I think about the "fear of missing out" and how awful I feel about myself after spending a few minutes or hours on social media. If the bulk of our impressions and judgments are based on a person's curated, filtered and well-lit online presence, how much value is really placed on the truth? Everyday we choose to believe the pictures more than our own experience; if I look perfect [online] than surely I must be perfect [IRL] despite any evidence to the contrary. Imagine if you saw me and all of my imperfections walking towards you on the street, would that experience matter in the face of a thousand perfect images online? Which representation would linger in your mind?
Despite rampant fakery and outrageous embellishments, truth and hope are not lost. In fact, they even exist on the internet. Think about that lady celebrity who posted a picture of her face covered in zit cream, the folks on Instagram who document the reality of their bodies without vanity lighting or flattering poses, the YouTube videos of people being honest about their struggles. Yet for every one of these demonstrations of honesty, there are countless more demonstrations of deception; image editing, selective storytelling and photo curation help keep that majority position on lock.
There is no denying the value of appearance. Dressing the part and putting effort into how we present ourselves has quantifiable benefit. What it really comes down to, is where is our value placed — on the insides or the outsides? I may feel like garbage when I see an impeccably maintained woman walking down the street, and I may judge myself against the posts of those in my Facebook and Instagram feeds, but I do not ever forget my self worth. I certainly get distracted — pretty, flashy things are natural attention grabbers after all — but I do not forget.
I am not any less of a person for wanting to look good and feel like I have my life together, nor am I any less of a person because of I have a multitude of flaws and insecurities. Sometimes I spend hours worrying about what I'm going to wear and wondering how I'm going to cover the huge zit between my eyes, applying makeup carefully and double-checking myself in the mirror repeatedly before leaving the house. Sometimes I don't, either because I just don't care that day or I'm too busy working. No matter the approach I take to facing the world outside my door, in the end I suck it up and put on a brave face. I "act as if" and get on with things. Life is a complicated mix of contradictions and I love it, even if I don't always like it.