What is the Obligation to Beauty?

You first discovered men, grown men, looking at your body inthat way two months before your thirteenth birthday. You quickly learned that this would be a major theme in your relationships with men – them looking; you fielding their looks – and accordingly, as most women do, you learned how to attract and repel with simple and repeatable gestures. A woman’s body is sexual until it is abject, but you know the esoteric truth: that the most erotic thing you can do is make it both, simultaneously. This is, of course, because men hate women (an aphorism, a metaphor? Don’t be mad) and women hate women to keep up with them, and the clearest means to express this is for women to comply and debase their bodies publically.

It was on the internet and in love that you first learned how to take a selfie. It wasn’t a selfie at the time, though, it was a self – carefully packaged and delivered for the approval of another, some man you’d met some night IRL, whose hand had touched your belly and it had burned for days afterward. Frank Zappa once said that ‘certification from one source or another seems to be the most important thing to people all over the world.’ Reading that was sad for you, sad because the truth of it was palpable. It reminded you that you hadn’t quite learned how to be autonomous, and that at any moment you could die awaiting certification from something or someone, and how pathetic is that?

The selfie happened when you looked into your webcam at him, at yourself, manipulating the angles of your face to look sexy and knowing and never asymmetrical, even though your face is, IRL, asymmetrical. You were vain enough to know how to pull this off. And he was none the wiser; it worked. He gave it up, he certified your attentions, and this thrilled you chilled you fulfilled you. Made you think perhaps you had mastered it, the artform of your life. That certification had been granted on your very own terms.

You wanted vulnerability, but you didn’t want to pay for it.

What you didn’t understand was that this man on the internet, this man IRL, his own want for certification had reified his own angles, his own voices, his own history, in search of approval. And so there you were, two beautiful projections needing, hungrily, the other’s certification.

You were always vain; always liked the way your face was both beautiful and ugly, how you were altogether beautiful and ugly. You’d always trailed behind the others to seek out your reflection in the shop window. Wanted to know how you looked when you stood, when you talked, smiled, cried.

It was only inside the ballet studio where you studied that you felt blameless before a mirror, where one entire wall was a reflection of the other. Where the chain-smoking Miss Carol stood behind you to correct your posture, guided by your reflections in the mirror, hers and your body, the same thing in that room: chin up, shoulders down, tuck in tummy and tail. Arch your breastless chest to the gods.

You actively watched your body while it danced, balanced yourself through your reflection, and inside that room that was no shame.

But it was being in love and on the internet that forced this vanity into a project of self-construction.

In being in love with him, you became in love with yourself, maybe even romantically so, in love with the projection of yourself you fed to him. How could he love you if you were not the idealised version of you? Love with your projections is not the same as egomania: it is fantasy.

The relationship, of course it ended. It was a relationship of images, narcissistic on all sides. You and he, self-archivists both, self-creators, you followed each other into love because the outward gesture was the one you both sought. You and he, narcissists both, but earnestly, honestly, childishly driven by the freedom of self-creation that you promised yourselves.

You want vulnerability, but you don’t want to pay for it. And you are irrevocably out of love.

It has been so long since you felt the full force of another person’s sex, the gravity of their every gesture, that you suspect you may have lost the ability to reach those parts of yourself. Or worse, that they were fictions invented by a thwarted libido. This is a phase, you are sure. Healthy? Best to not ruminate.

There have been infatuations, of course, but few and far between, and experienced only with a concurrent knowledge that they would end within three weeks, even as you awoke from dreams of them. You calculate: three weeks of attraction is enough for to enjoy a spurt in creativity, to begin a new project of self-actualisation (which is perhaps what all art is) and then settle back into some littoral mode, some neutral zone. It is not bad; maybe you even prefer it this way.

And so you began interacting with your self-image differently. When you used to plan everything around his private, psychic attention, the heightened consciousness of your words and movements and actions made you more desirable to others, faceless others you barely noticed. Now, without this receptacle for your attentions, you have begun to look outward, and what could be more outward than the internet? Freed from the confines of certification-lust, you give less of a fuck than ever before, about everything, and this revelation is one of the most powerful forces in your life. You even begin to shirk the omnipresence of your (good, wholesome, nourishing) parents’ concern and guidance, and you begin to be self, autonomously.

You know more than anyone that there is a sexual dimension to this, but that it is not driven, precisely, by sex. No longer sharing a whole and private and engrossing intimate life with a person you direct every waking gesture at, your sexuality, and your instinct for expressing it, takes a droll turn. You pose your body in a caricature of sexual longing and photograph it on your laptop. This photograph upsets the real purpose of an expression of sexual longing, and this decontextualisation is grotesque. Thomas Mann said that the grotesque is the ‘genuine anti-bourgeois style’, and this makes you feel validated, in a way. Your body has gone from being a machine of deep emotion to a clever and inward-looking joke, which of course, is replete with grief for lost meaning. But you are fine with this new mode of being. It correlates with your new ideals.

When you post your base, de/sexualised selfies on facebook, you think they are funny and so do your ‘friends’. They lol and ask for more. They are gagging for it. You like this attention because it means that they get it. They feel you. You may have tapped into something that resonates with their own loss of meaning, their own desire to construct impenetrable layers of their own self meaning. To be in a way they were not before.

You post a self-portrait on facebook that you know to be both sexual and comical and possibly self-exploiting, and afterward men you know, vaguely from RL, they send you messages about maybe going on a date some time. The layers of your self-direction gives them some permission slip, you suppose. You remind them that you live a continent away, and they more or less respond by saying it is affirmation they are seeking, not love. And you empathise with this urge and so you say, sure, why not? I’ll certify you.

You do not conform, entirely, to a normative model of female beauty. This you know, but you have made a decision to be in on the joke, to build a resistance to its hindrance by directing the conditions for your physical exploitation. You have the body of a person who loves pasta rather than a bikini model. You do, after all, spend fourteen hours a day staring into a screen. Your face, while pretty, has ‘no angles’ as a (male) friend once informed you. You are ‘not technically hot’, he had said, ‘but your swag gives you some sex appeal.’ Thanks be.

Your moods, which are not always sweet and gentle, visibly affect your face/swag. But you are attuned enough to the sexual powers all young women possess to never be lonely in matters of sex; to articulate a level of attraction that is ‘technically’ above you. You can tap male models if that is what you feel like doing. And sometimes, you do.

You want vulnerability but you don’t want to pay for it. Sheila Heti once said that she was interested in the self, but not necessarily herself. You like this assessment. You are reading about yourself now, that’s what you think, but it’s a fiction. Just one of many/innumerable delusions. You want the reality and the fiction to merge. You want to be Chance the Rapper. You want to usher people into some space where they imagine themselves in untold ways.

If you can make yourself beautiful and ugly, make the fiction of yourself a simultaneously attractive and repellent thing, why not sculpt your body, too? Does your body even exist, now of all times? Has it ever? Un/fortunately you have never had the discipline nor inclination required for anorexia. But you know it when you see it: the joke a woman makes when she is drunk or sick and throws up and says I was much better at this when I was fifteen.

There is nothing more abject nor more powerful than a woman who likes herself. You are not sure if you like yourself, but you like the projection of yourself you are best at.

When you meet people, men and women, you imagine what it would be like to sleep with them. Not because you are attracted to them, but because you had assumed this was the normal way of interacting with other people at the very beginning. The judgement is very swift, and usually results in the outcome that having thought about it, you do not want to sleep with that person. You thought this was normal until you heard a ‘womaniser’-type character on TV, it might have been Don Draper or any number of revered Big Dicks, say that he imagined what it would be like to sleep with practically everybody, and this admission was coldly received.

There is nothing you want less than to sleep with everybody. This has to be stated. It is an imagination thing; that is all.

The drive to a singularity, a whole, is the same as the drive to a duplicate identity: a desire to be self and other, subject and object. This drive, to submit and control all at once.

When you arrive in a romantic relationship you fought for, you immediately imagine elaborate ways to break it off. You can never get as close to the other as the promise of love – what a sad cliché, perfect, really – suggests. They remain an other person, with desires and ideas and histories beyond your own. And yet the intertwined-ness reduces your individuality to some kind of a story. And that is not ok with you.

A selfie captures this dissonance: that you are at once the same and different. Needing contact, affirmation, certification, but resisting the interpretation of the viewer who wants to know but can’t possibly.

Your grandmother was an artist. Is still an artist. Is in an intensive care unit as you read, still being your grandmother, still being an artist, but maybe for not much longer. Since the sixties, she has worn, every day, her hair in a loose bun poised at the top of her crown. You always admired her glamour, emulated it as best you could. You wind your hair up in that bun and look at yourself in your laptop screen. You look like her, but only in some unnameable way, something to do with the soft jaw that recedes into your pale neck.

She was woman and artist in the time when woman and artist altogether fell into the ‘difficult’ to ‘excruciating’ vocational bracket. You are woman and artist, now, in the time when the internet says you shouldn’t complain because after all you are a white person who got to go to university, so your vocation falls more under the ‘above average’ bracket of difficulty, and only sometimes, when you are eating doritos because they have the most calories and protein your price-range allows and you don’t have a proper winter coat because you’re broke and a dickhead that it slips into ‘difficult’ terrain. But then maybe you should just work harder. Brand yourself. Get an agent, do journalism better. Un/fortunately, that kind of pragmatism does not fit with your programme of self-production.

You look at family photos, and wonder where you came from, why you couldn’t just take a normal job and be happy like that. Is it their fault? Did their genes conspire to make you like this?

All these people whose genes are your genes, they all have, bar your mother, these dignified aquiline noses. You don’t know how your slippery-slope with a button nub made it from the gene pool and onto your face. You suspect that no one would think of you as a bimbo if you had one of their stately noses. They might even give you a promotion. Which you would politely decline.

A selfie captures this dissonance: that you are at once the same and different. Your ancestors felt the same. They just didn’t have a webcam.

Although it has been some time since you felt the ignition of sexual longing for a real person in real life, you find yourself falling in love with famous rappers at an inexplicable rate. You think about this for a long time, because although it is perhaps normal for adults to be attracted to celebrities, the private and obsessive nature of your love for these men is incompatible with your cut-throat attitude lately. You feel that you do not genuinely desire to share a life or even a bed with these young men, but rather that you wish to be these men.

You want to have big testicles of the cultural variety and a fast mouth and a self that so sharply resists interpretation because you have merged the fiction of your artform and the reality of your life so seamlessly that one never knows where the story ends and the reality picks up.

This kind of power is only afforded to great artists, and then only the Big Dick variety of great artists. The power to assume the integrity of the author, the masculine authority of creation, all the while retaining femme power, the intrigue of the represented. At the moment, it is Chance the Rapper you love and wish to be.

But Chance is just one in a long line of them. They are normally the earnest kinds of rappers like Drake or Lupe who undoubtedly vote in federal elections and would crack a safe joke with your grandma over a cup of Earl Grey. But if you are truly honest with yourself, there was that time you were hot for Tyler the Creator, the worst and yet the best, the most obnoxious rapper with the biggest testicles – of the cultural variety, the powerful variety – imaginable. It is terrible and charismatic, this person you want to be.

Being self-made, self-created like this, like Tyler, it epitomises your under-the-carpet capitalist/liberal longings, expressed in the old-school Romantic-era kind of way: striving towards the perfectly flawed individual, denying the possibility of enculturation, of not really getting to decide who you’re allowed to be. It could be because you are Girl, that you have this desire to resist the non/fiction, the vexing reality of your identity, the fuck-off one you are confined to.

If you are real with yourself, there is something shameful about all this: not just your face, body, beauty, ugliness. But all those forces which have tightened their claws on your body and mind and will never relent, not until long after you are gone. Their presence, floating in and out of your peripheral vision, prevent you from going deep, from turning yourself inside out and flaying yourself to some God or another.

You want vulnerability, but you don’t want to pay for it; you are the same and you are different. Perhaps it is the narcissist, the person who is both subject and object – at least both the subject and object of their self-image – who is the visionary, the revolutionary.