vanity

In my dream home, there is a two-car garage, a sizable backyard with a magnolia tree which is always in bloom, a million and one channels on the TV, all of which are educational, a room with nothing in it but forty thousand books organized neatly on mahogany shelves, a grey armchair and a Persian rug I do not like, and zero mirrors.

I’ve been growing my hair for almost a year and a half now. I started with a taper cut in August 2014 and have been growing it ever since. I realized in October of that year that I didn’t know what I was doing for my hair had become dry and difficult to manage. There is a sort of culture behind the maintenance of Black hair which I had sort of ignored for a multitude of reasons. I hadn’t grown my hair since I was 8 years old, and then it was not actually me taking care of it. Now that I was *pseudo* on my own, I was responsible for making sure I didn’t look crazy.

So I bought all the ingredients to be truly “natural.” I rejected store-brand products for the organic stuff – yellow Shea butter, castor and jojoba oils, and more essential oils that I’ll ever use. And I suppose I took some sort of pride in finding a way to be avant-garde – c’est-a-dire annoyingly different – while also being, in my own head, different. Few other men at Swarthmore had grown their hair, and those who did were doing something different with it. Similarly, the way my hair blended with my aesthetic created a deep enough rift with other Black men rocking similar haircuts. I took pictures on my computer – too terrible to share – and watched my hair get longer and longer.

In the mirror I saw someone who I barely knew. For so long I had seen the same face when I looked into this glass and ice world. A person who shrugged perpetually, who was not content with his own image, who peered at his body as one glanced at an ugly, uncomely scar. I saw the same folds and curvatures which had receded back and out of my body, brown parabolas which still adorn my body long after having shed the cocoon of my former self.

I became obsessed with the idea of changing myself. As I began to inexplicably lose weight my freshman year, I felt the urge to become someone else. I told myself “change is good” without adding the much necessary addendum, that which so often escapes us on our way; “in moderation.”

And so I forced my own transformation, outlined, redacted and replaced my body and my mind until little remained of the old me. I looked back at my life, and the people I’d met and learned to secretly despise, the friendships I’d built and squandered and I felt an immense guilt which made me afraid to go back home. I hoped that people would see this new self, these new sullen eyes and mistake me for someone else.

But I was always recognizable, if not at first glance.

I’ve long since moved past this perpetual state of guilty reflection, although it does come back in waves at times, and likely will for many years. A sense of self-loathing, of self-pity which is but a permutation of a preoccupation with vanity, with the glorification, deification and demonization of the self. In my mind I was perfect and I was also composed of flaws. I had so much potential, but all that potential was wasted on my inability to actually actualize it. I occupied two dimensions violently.

I avoided mirrors from tenth to twelfth grade. I did not like what I saw when I peered into them; the eyes, the mouth, the jaw all seemed peculiar to me. An eerie sense of déjà vu is the result of one’s own self-scrutiny and I more than anyone else hated the notion of being judged, despite my propensity to project my own judgment onto others. I would dash by storefronts without looking up, for I knew I would be looking back at myself. I got dressed in the morning without checking myself in the mirror, for I knew what I looked like, knew how I felt. I did not need evidence to corroborate my own self-loathing.

With my eyes I cast unspeakable judgment on the world around me. Like the Medusa, my reflected gaze had the ability to deaden my own flesh.

On the path to self-love, I have grown my hair in order to learn to accept the way my body naturally functions instead of trying to cut it into a shape I can live with. The process of learning to love myself has come from a healthy obsession with the ice world of the mirror, although now I wonder if such a thing as a healthy obsession can exist. It seems now that I have flipped the script. The mirror is everything, is a wonderland. In the mirror I can marvel at my form in a way which would have made my younger self cringe in agony. An awe at the way my body is shaped, at the way my hair grows, at the peculiarities of skin and follicle contribute to the same narcissism which spurred my original self-loathing. The desire to attain perfection, how impossible it may seem on paper, disappears when one gazes into the unreal world of a mirror. One sees before them an image, dream and nightmare. The only thing that can shake you free is to shatter the mirror or to walk away. And like Narcissus, we often find ourselves entrapped by the allure of the self, by the horror and lust of our own image.

In my dream house, there are no mirrors. My closet is stacked with clothes which I know will fit well, and my family warns me of whether my ties are askew or if I’ve skipped a button. If there is a mirror, I keep a heavy black tarp over it and tell my children it’s my portal into the past.

 

 

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