The Real Social Network
“The better you look, the more you see.” This is narcissistic model Victor Ward's favorite chill saying in Bret Easton Ellis's 1999 novel Glamorama . In a lot of ways, I think both the 80s and 90s had really perpetuated the idea of physical beauty being the only means of perceiving people, the one-way mirror of appearance. Certainly film and the invention of commercial fashion magazines started it. The better a person looks, the more they're accepted, the more they're taken seriously as human beings, and of course it isn't just looks but the persona the person carries. It's a trend that's become more inflamed in the 21st century. If you are a guy and look and act like a real man, you will be taken seriously. Even if you aren't particularly attractive in the traditional sense, as long as you carry confidence and a personable demeanor, women will look to you more as a friend, and possibly as a boyfriend. I've seen this happen in my classes before. But if you're like me, short (even if not very short), young-looking for your age even if you're not hideous, and if you're shy on top of it all, then even if you carry yourself like a man, dress normally and try to appear at all cool, the efforts usually fall flat. The “cool” guys look at you and begin to crack laughs.
Appearance is everything to college students. At least at my college, Columbia College, in the heart of Chicago, it is. While I had an increased sense of self-esteem about myself going into my first year here, believing I looked good, that I had a real talent to excel with, and that I could leave my devastating past behind me, I quickly found myself as disrespected by my peers as I had been in high school, or even middle school. People don't seem to look at me as a person as much as they do a kid. I'm twenty-one, but only on the inside. I can't get food at a fast-food joint without the clerk calling me “buddy”, or a waitress at a restaurant calling me “hun” like I'm fucking twelve years old. Everyone I meet treats me automatically with superiority, like I'm too inexperienced in life to have an opinion of my own or articulate thought. And yet this isn't how I am, or at all how I feel. In fact, I'd say I feel older than most people my age.
There's a certain narcissism which pervades my generation. Everyone's focused on themselves, what with the self-indulgent Facebook walls or Twitter accounts (I really do believe Facebook is simply a more interactive Twitter) and the countless other selfish blogging systems. Everybody is so focused on themselves and their own ideals. And with the shallow pressures of the American aesthetic, promoting physical prowess as the only means of gaining respect, people are more skewed in their perceptions. An example for me would be in a conversation I sat in on in class yesterday when the teacher wasn't around. The classmates, all girls, were discussing the teachers on campus; talking about which ones were good, which ones were "really cute" and which were terrible or which were believed to be good until they had them. Then came up a teacher whom I genuinely had respect for, my fiction teacher for last semester. The girl talking about him eventually pointed to me and mentioned to the other girls how “mean” this professor was to me, as she was in the same class with him as I was. The comment threw me off emotionally, and not only that, confused me about myself even more than I already was to begin with.
“I didn't think he was that bad,” I said to the girl, not bothering to mention the time this teacher pulled me out of class to simply ask I participate more, and not only that, take the time to inform me that I was a really strong writer and that the class could have used more of my critiquing.
The class just laughed innocently at my comment.
“You obviously weren't perceptive to him being mean to you,” the girl said arrogantly.
“He just asked for me to recall a lot more.” Recall being what we do in class when we are asked to verbalize a moment in any story we remember.
“Exactly,” the girl said. “That was picking on you. He kept wanting you to 'expand, expand'. I just thought, You asshole, leave Ben alone.”
The conversation made me wonder if I didn't have the wrong idea about this teacher, and it caused me to go back in my mind to think of any hints he might have given that he despised or at least disliked me at all. I couldn't. He was kind to me in the teacher-student conference. He gave me compliments on my work more than any criticism. He recommended other authors to me. And on top of that, every time I've seen him since then he takes the time to smile and say “hi” to me, and even ask me how I've been doing, keeping up with me. A teacher who dislikes a student simply doesn't do that.
This caused me to come to the conclusion that this girl, as well as most of the others dissing this teacher, were the ones who weren't perceptive. They had a different worldview, a warped perspective on how things were. I have a feeling this girl sees me as pathetic, perhaps not even a particularly good writer (unlike herself, of course), and so of course no teacher could possibly like me. Yet she had a misconception about who I was. With all that said, I've had another teacher, a whole classroom as a matter of fact, treat me unfairly this semester. I believe a lot of people have their own misconceptions about others, not willing to open their minds to see the full picture. It's a narrow-mindedness that's becoming evermore present it would seem.
America has a different standard for people from other countries. In order to make it socially here, as a guy at least, you have to be taller and either manly or pretty in appearance. If you're below the universal standard of 5'9'' and aren't very muscular and are pale, blond and thin, you won't be seen as much as a person as a space-waster, especially to women. If you're relatively tall or average height, dark (not just dark-skinned but dark-haired), have a matured face and carry yourself well, with swag and charisma to replace looks if you lack them, then you'll make it. Life is easier. I sometimes can't even ask for drugs or booze from someone without someone else snickering or looking at me in mild disbelief. But then maybe that's the very reason I do those things in the first place, to escape these feelings of alienation.
In other countries, physical beauty is less important and intellectual beauty and talent is more treasured. You can see this in the various people who've grown famous in Europe over the years and found adoration by the masses (Monty Python, Rowan Atkinson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint, etc.). All of my favorite writers have done better in Europe than this place. If you're a good actor, writer, comedian, or generally smart, you can make it across the seas much easier, it would seem. They even understand irony and satire more. Robert Pattinson, as an example of celebrity, only recently a pretty big heartthrob for starring in Twilight , said he wasn't really popular at all his entire life until he had his first breakout role in the fourth Harry Potter .
I come from a suburban Chicago background, and I guess I look it. It certainly seems like when people first meet me they assume I'm a weak pussy, a “weiner” (I'd been called this in high school once), who had an easy, nerdy, over-privileged life. They don't stop to think of the countless wounds I could carry, the horrible, soul-maiming childhood I could have had. Things I've had to be strong enough to push through on top of the social degradation. Though I've certainly never thought I was ugly at least, my father having been a good-looking athlete when younger and the same with my mom.
As anyone reading this can probably tell, I carry as much of a selfish, cynical point of view as many other twenty-somethings my age, a learned introversion spurned by years and years of isolation. With the promotion of the “me” lifestyle and the constant persistence of the media's telling people what's acceptable and what isn't, one can't help but succumb to its allure. I know I do. If I had the money I'd wear nice clothes everyday, snort coke, drink and smoke weed every ten minutes, probably even go for mild plastic surgery. I'd dine at the hip restaurants and go to the best nightclubs to meet chicks every other night to feed my social needs. At the same time, I don't have the outgoing personality to get away with many of those things. With some people the “mental me” is hugely different from their “physical me”. I know mine are, which is definitely a source of most of my pain. When I was a kid, always teased for being small and the awkward only child, I thought for sure I was going to show them all and grow up to be the person everyone would look up to and respect, and that I'd be a good man. But it seems like this hasn't happened with me, at least not yet.
I personally believe women are the most affected by the media's ideals for beauty, especially in this country, but mostly because I've never had a girlfriend, never even been on a date or had a hug, I don't know for sure, and I certainly can't completely generalize. But of the countless conversations I've overheard, and seeing what women want (they keep more posters of the celebrities they adore than the thoughts men have of the women they do) I think I can guess that I'm mostly right. Women simply don't like guys who aren't “men”, or for the most part who aren't on the cover of magazines. They want the guy who's arrogant. They want the jackass who knows he's got everything the girls want, someone I'd probably be if I were physically luckier.
On the other hand, I know guys who only go after the most beautiful girls, are equally vapid in their lack of a want for a meaningful relationship, and only go for one-night stands. With magazines like Playboy , even if I have nothing against them, most men who read them only want those types of women. We're pressured to get a woman with perfect tits, artificially tan skin, and mainstream interests. We're not told to go after the average, or the ones who stand out in a good way.
Of course this is ironically changing in film and television. The leading man now is someone like Seth Rogen, or Michael Cera, people who are far cries from typical heartthrobs, but are making it in America for raising the hopes and dreams of being with beautiful women (another ironic redundancy). So even if the media is trying to make someone like Jay Baruchel in She's Out of My League totally able to get the beautiful girl, it's still emphasizing the male desire for looks themselves. And don't tell me the girl Rogen settled for in Observe and Report wasn't hot by most guys' standards! And Emma Stone an "average girl" in Easy A ? Yeah fucking right.
I believe Bukowski had it right. Beauty is bullshit. It's a cold and meaningless calculated interpretation of the face. It's the shape of the eyebrows, the way they lay over the eyes, or the shape of a nose and the way the lips are formed. We're living in an age where if you aren't the person everyone wants to be or at least look like, you're the one who's miserable if you don't carry the esteem, social experience or charisma to get past it. And with everyone continually drawing more inwards with every new generation, the means of gaining instant gratification is also increasing.
Perhaps Victor Ward really had things figured out after all. If you're someone like him, there's nothing you want to hide from.