Vanity: Second skin

I’m vain enough not to want to admit my vanity. I know it’s a blemish, a vice I would do better without. And yet, for the sake of virtues, let me be honest. I’m vain.

I’m so vain that when an important occasion is nearing, one of my first peripheral but insistent concerns is whether I’ll manage to look good that day. Most of my anxious attention is directed at my skin. (Of course, that’s counterproductive and probably increases my chances of developing zits.) But reason plays no part in this – it’s a neurotic obsession that can’t be curbed. The only thing to do is to sit tight and cross my fingers nothing will happen. I mean cross my fingers literally because this phase requires a good portion of superstitious thinking, and the discipline to resist attacking my poor pores (when fingers are crossed they’re incapacitated). I hope so eagerly that fortune will be on my side, but I also know that my own actions will play a part. If the urge to “sort out” my imperfect complexion wins over, I could ruin the situation entirely.

Fact: I have never had a facial, and imagine that an expert, or worse, a fraudulent beautician, would be horrified at the condition of my epidermis. Fact two: I don’t need another judge to pull out her microscope and declare the need for intervention because I already do that myself, thank you. And, vain as I am, I fear that whatever procedure is required will aggravate rather than improve. I’m inherently skeptical of anyone wishing to interfere with my face because I know what that leads to. I’m not one for free samples, experimental make-up sessions, etc. I might be overly careful in that department, but my skin is sensitive and prone to react. Fact three: my superstition is rooted in reality. My thoughts do influence my skin. I might not be able to control the manifestations, but I can almost predict them. They are involuntary, yet reliable. I’ve been spared the serious afflictions, like eczema and acne, but I’ve had my fair share of mystery conditions, which I will here self-name spontaneous hives (or ghost bites), surprise rashes, hateful bumps and boils. The psycho-somatic connection is real, people. Off the bat, I can think of two friends who suffer similar symptoms. The footprint of stress? The mirror of conscience? The revenge of vanity?

Having vented about my curses, I must now admit that I’ve never had it that bad. In the grand scheme of things, I live in lucky skin and a lucky body. Like most of us, I take my good fortune for granted, and fixate on the annoying details; the tiny things no one else sees. It’s a terribly vain and ungrateful attitude, especially when one thinks of the grace with which some people carry their challenges. Although I have a constant underlying awareness of that, it doesn’t always blot out my trivial concerns. Sadly, we can’t internalize our own wisdom until it physically leaves its mark. Only after prolonged sickness or a broken arm – minor disturbances in the grand scheme of a life – does my perspective truly recalibrate. And it doesn’t even last. The best I can do is remind myself that in terms of my exterior, I’m as privileged as I could hope to be.

And yet… it’s difficult to start believing something, when it hasn’t always been true. When you’ve worked hard to fit in and achieve a passable appearance, even if it was years ago, almost lifetimes. When you’ve cultivated and ingrained rituals and routines to ensure your adequacy, and now depend on them like a second skin. When you’re a faithful convert, but still afraid of the untamed beast lurking underneath, the former you that was rejected and ridiculed. The girl who was more like a boy or an animal, mindless of her tangled mane, uncool clothing, and pudgy shape until she noticed that it mattered. That “putting herself together” would gain her entry and a sense of belonging, however fickle and precarious. Freedom from vanity was not freedom but loneliness, even if the adoption of vanity unleashed a multitude of other curses.

When I first began to experiment with my look, I was extremely self-conscious about the effort it took. I was worried that I would draw attention to myself and become even more laughable instead of bridging the gap to acceptable, and eventually maybe even desirable. In high school, putting on make-up felt shameful and embarrassing, but I decided it had become necessary. This felt like a betrayal of my former self, and – worse – my mom, who raised me as the wild child I was, and never cared about the whole production of femininity. Not that she explicitly condemned it; she simply didn’t require it for herself, and I was afraid of offending her and exposing a glaring lack of integrity. So, I would lock myself in the big upstairs bathroom of our house to secretly put on make-up before school, although everyone had to pass through there to get ready in the morning. Of course, they knew what I was up to, because I would reemerge with a new face, and still I just couldn’t bear to let them in, despite their obvious knowing, desperate knocking, and exasperated calling. I was mortified, and therefore perpetuated this ineffective and even more mortifying denial. In retrospect, I’m almost incredulous of my family’s patience. We were always running late, even before I started barricading the bathroom, and I turned our mornings into a stressful and ridiculous charade for all of us, including myself.

I suspect that the reason for my parents’ tolerance was that they understood the roots of my behavior, knew I was attempting an uneasy identity transition, part of which involved refuting the values of openness and naturalness they had instilled in me. In the end, I finally dropped the absurd secrecy around applying make-up, although I can still feel the twinge of self-consciousness when I sense I’m being watched in the process of transformation. I also reduced the inordinate amount of time it used to take me to assemble myself (seeing as I was such a novice). Nonetheless, the meticulousness with which I attend to my face – a lasting side effect of wanting to correct everything that was wrong with me – continues to shackle me to my trained, now intrinsic vanity.


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