Who’s that person in the mirror? What do they say about you as a human?
Do you like how you look? Really?
If so, awesome. More power to you. (Like it or not, the rest of us are more or less stuck with how we appear–if only to ourselves.)
I bring this up not to be so existential or deep–I’m more comedian (unpaid) than philosopher–but because it’s an issue that pops up in various forms for me (who isn’t too self-conscious) almost daily.
To wit: I just received the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition (I didn’t think to decline it, though it holds little real content of interest). I don’t need to share the cover image. Suffice to say the cover model is attractive and is “wearing” less than what you could craft with a handful of bleached spaghetti noodles. She and her fellow subjects arguably represent the feminine ideal (sprawled in exotic locales, Photoshopped to blemish-free copper tones, un-apologetically sexualized to help market $400 bikinis).
Wait, dude, you’re a guy. Why do you care?
(There’s a lot of reasons to care–including the ongoing objectification of women–but I’ll get to those in another blog.)
Now, the flip side to the Swimsuit Issue’s arrival in my house is something I’ve noticed every time I walked through a bookstore or looked online. (I offer this simply as food for thought.) There must be a few million romance or historical romance novels on the market. In each and every one of them is a guy (usually bare-chested and rugged) who doesn’t look like me. I don’t ride horses or motorcycles. I’m not ripped (even 30 pounds lighter, you’d need a loaded gun to get me shirtless in public). And I’d look utterly stupid in a cowboy hat or sporting tattoos. My wife (who peruses romance novels) would agree.
Truth be told, I’m not unhappy with the way I look. Yes, I could be lighter/more fit. Yes, I could do without a droopy left eyelid (I have something in common with basketball star Dwyane Wade!!!). My face is, well, just a face-in-the-crowd mug. When I run or workout, I grimace. When I play soccer, I’m back to that comedian look. Writing in public (yes, I do that) I probably resemble Curious George trying to concentrate on a puzzle. In other words, there never has been (and never will be) a time in my life when someone’s approached me about being on a brochure or the cover of a novel. (The lone exception is that I “modeled” for part of the image for The Churning, as it was a hell-of-a-lot cheaper than paying someone else to stand in. I even joke about this on Twitter.)
The not-so-bitter pill to swallow here: “I yams what I yams,” as Popeye said. Stuck with me. How people see me is probably more “tired dad” than anything. C’est la vie.
(These book covers, of course, are equally guilty of pushing the ideal of a gorgeous, curvy and often compromised woman.)
So, rather than a boo-hoo epiphany for Ol’ Justin (knowing that untold tens of millions of women would rather look at a tall, strapping rake than myself) it begs a few questions. First, how much power of perception have we–the general public–handed over to various marketing departments? Conventional wisdom tells us that nobody in their right mind would put my face on the cover or in an advertisement for anything. Is eye candy the almighty gatekeeper for escapism?
Two, speaking of my fellow men, where are the other guys? A number of gentlemen I play soccer with are fitter and better-looking than me. They’re not making it onto glossy covers. And, clearly, you can forget about any of the local technology managers (actually in possession of power and prestige) who look like they couldn’t complete five real push-ups if their life depended on it. They’re not book-cover material, either.
Three, given the various identity crises and image problems we Americans clearly have (see recent election) isn’t it about time we, the general public, start paying a little more attention to who we are, rather than constantly run to a voluptuous or chiseled ideal for a hero/heroine? And what could it hurt to do so?
For the cover of Endgame, the book designer and I selected a woman’s eye rather than the whole “pretty” face. It works, as my heroine is, in fact, a sharpshooter. But it also kept me from having to add a concrete face to my main character. It should hardly matter what June Vereeth looks like (sparsely described as athletic and short-haired). (No, she doesn’t resemble model Kate Upton.) In public, she probably wouldn’t turn heads. But for the story, she’s level-headed, egalitarian and she’s got a sharp eye on the battlefield. She’s who I need her to be, and she gets three more novels to try and preserve her humanity in wartime. (Here, too, I’ve noticed that women on sci-fi covers often appear sack-ready voluptuous, as well as world-wise and confident.)
Escapism is wonderful. Obviously, I’m all for it. It’s what we writers do best. Sometimes, though, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better if we could actually recognize some of ourselves in the escape. Plumbers and teachers and school administrators and server gurus can all be exciting heroes, too.