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22 May 2009

Gazing in the mirror

Gay men, in particular, have been stereotyped as being particularly narcissistic. But what do we see (or want to see) when we look in the mirror?

“Look in the mirror,
Tell me what do you see?
Is he true,
Is he perfect,
Is he actually free?
Look in the mirror
Tell me what do you see?
Is she happy,
Is she perfect,
Is she actually free?
Say, “I’m good,
Could be better”
Say, “I will
Make a change for the better”
Say, “I’m good,
Could be better”
Say, “I will
Make a change for the better””
-    Lyrics to chorus of Look in the Mirror
by Filipino American hip hop group Native Guns

Two private moments
My first boyfriend and I stand in front of the mirror, staring at each other’s naked bodies. He is much broader than I am, his chest and shoulders. Tufts of hair stream languidly across his chest, a little plump, as fair-skinned as a lampshade. Next to him, I look lean, though behind his back I might gripe about the weight I have gained; I may pinch the flesh at my waist; I may stare perplexed at my figure. Here now, however, we are both naked together and there is no pain, no self-consciousness. He stands behind me, with his right arm wrapped tight around my waist, and his left arm slung over my shoulder. He nuzzles into my neck, and I am aware of our breathing. For a few moments, his eyes glance out into our reflection from behind my shoulder as we look at ourselves in the mirror, as if he were a shy possum. Acutely, I am aware of the sensations that flush through my body, the joy of togetherness. I feel warm. With him, I have forgotten the pain of loneliness. With his fingers tracing the concave line down the center of my chest, down past my pecs and belly, ruffling themselves through my pubic hair and settling down on my thighs, my heart feels sore with affection. A smile spreads across both our faces. Love.

"I suspect much of the time we spend looking in the mirror is as much about an over-indulgence in self-love as it is also a struggle to like what we see. Most of us have demons we have yet to exorcise."
At another moment, I am staring at the mirror alone. This could be any moment, not any one in particular, where I have been deep in the recess of sadness, regret, and unrequited love, and have taken it out on my body. My gaze upon my own flesh is delirious with disgust. I hate the bags under my eyes. I hate my body. I hate my hair. I hate my cheeks. I hate my chin. I hate my arms. Whatever existential angst I may harbour about life, I project upon my body, demanding its acquiescence to my control, but it will not listen. I am ugly. Everything is out of place. My eyes spit their hatred all upon myself, and I am tempted to throw up all over the mirror in an exaggerated gesture of self-loathing. This is the power of raw rage: a fist smashing against an image of myself I can no longer bear to contemplate, so I might walk away with bloodied knuckles, stupidly convinced that this has made any difference.
The Ancient Greek myth of Narcissus: Narcissus is a vain, but incredibly gorgeous young man, who shuns the love and affection of the gods and his male suitors. Nobody is good enough for him. Wandering through the forest one day, he finds himself on the banks of a river in search of water to drink. He crouches to reach into the water when he catches his reflection staring back at him. Suddenly, he finds himself enraptured by this image and falls quickly and erratically in love. He lies there on the bank of the river, wondering about the beautiful youth who is gazing back at him. As he reaches his finger out to touch this image, it disintegrates into ripples, shocking him out of his reverie and leaving him hankering after in heartache. However, after a few moments, the water stills, and his reflection reappears, as reflections do when water is given time to rest. This time, Narcissus is cautious. He has become so enamoured by his image that he refuses to touch the water again, for it would damage and dissipate the image of himself. It is here, by the banks of the river, that he lays for the rest of his life, entranced by his own reflection.

He dies of thirst.

This myth has always fascinated me. It is a story of the deadly danger of one extreme end of vanity. It is a story of autoeroticism (love of self). Most of us, however, do not live our lives with our attitudes of self-love quite so extreme. Many of us go back and forth between bouts of self-love and bouts of self-hatred. There are days when we think ourselves as an Adonis or a Madonna, the epitome of perfection, when every smile and wink and performance for ourselves in front of the mirror elicits our own secret applause. On other days, we think ourselves as ‘unworthy,’ so we pluck and pull and press and squeeze and force every ounce of detestation upon ourselves. Contained within vanity are thus two opposite extremes: the extreme of self-love, epitomised by Narcissus, and the opposite side of the same coin; the extreme of self-loathing… those times we wonder in all abusive and tragic sincerity how it is that we could ever be loved.

The mirror becomes a site for a strange paradox in self-reflection. After all, our sense of self is usually not the object of our own gaze. We tend to walk through the world, our eyes affixed upon external objects, or other people. We direct our attention toward others, and judge harshly because we feel we can. “I like him, I hate her.” “I want this, I don’t want that.” We think that we are separate from everyone and everything else, and have a solid sense of separate self-identity. We feel entitled to our likes and our dislikes, our love and our hatred, our praise for and condemnation of others. In front of the mirror, however, this distance between subject and object breaks down. We become both. We are both the “looker” and the “looked at.” We subject ourselves to the very same gaze that we usually gift upon others.

Narcissus became so enamoured of his own image that he died, literally thirsting after himself. The myth teaches us that vanity is a yearning, a thirst that can never truly be quenched.

See with love to love what we see
And yet, for many of us, we have not grown up with such a ‘freedom’ to love ourselves so blithely till our death. Indeed, our popular culture teaches opposing values: to be constantly dissatisfied with who we are. The media tells us we are too fat or too skinny, never with the best clothes or the best shoes. We do not have perfect teeth, cheekbones. Our bodies are oddly shaped, our sex lives pitifully inadequate. Our hair is thinning as we age, our skin has lost its luster. We are too feminine, too masculine, too “gay-acting,” too smooth, too hairy. And the gay media is hardly any redemption from the perpetuation of these values. It teaches us the nobility of Narcissism, and we learn self-loathing.

Gay men, in particular, have been stereotyped as being particularly vain, and narcissistic. The word ‘homoerotic’ literally means the ‘love of the same’; It is likely that a homophobic culture would thus interpret narcissism as the most logical extreme of homoerotic sexuality… How much more ‘same’ can we get than ourselves…? From our perspective, on the other hand, I suspect much of the time we spend looking in the mirror is as much about an over-indulgence in self-love as it is also a struggle to like what we see. Most of us have demons we have yet to exorcise.

As the recent Pink Dot campaign in Singapore so wonderfully exemplified, one of the most empowering things that we can thus do for our lives and for our world around us is to become more aware of how we see ourselves and each other, and to engage this loving awareness in the service of justice. No longer could LGBT people just be seen as ‘Other’ such that laws must be retained to continue to squash the consummation of our sexualities. We are also people from whom the legitimacy of our love has continued to be legally denied.

As African American civil rights activist the Reverend Martin Luther King has said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love."

For two gay men who had grown up being taught by our families and our societies to hate ourselves, hate our bodies, and hate our homosexuality, it was a small victory that my ex and I could look at ourselves in the mirror and feel happy. In that moment, looking at ourselves may have seemed, to an outsider, close to the self-congratulatory death-sentence of vain narcissism. But we did not fall in love with ourselves as Narcissus did. Our happiness and love was bittersweet; it was a relief… that indeed there was a way to look at another man with longing, and to have that gaze reciprocated and returned. And this too, was the reason why I watched the youtube clips of the Pink Dot campaign with tears streaming down my eyes. For the first time, I felt like I was being seen by mainstream Singaporeans through eyes of empathy and love, in a small but important attempt to correct the painful, reckless, and needless abuses that so many of us have faced in the country that stood against our love.

When we see that other people are not only ‘Other,’ but that we are all fundamentally and universally both the ‘looker’ and the ‘looked at,’ we may learn that every chance we get to see another person is an opportunity to look as if at our own reflections in a mirror. What we see will thus be dependent entirely on how we look, and what we choose to see. This is the most accurate reflection of who we are. This is the most accurate reflection of who we can ultimately become.

Shinen Wong is a high calorie product of globalisation and lives in Sydney, Australia en route from Malaysia, Singapore, and the USA. In his fortnightly "Been Queer. Done That" column, Wong explores gender, sexuality, and queer cultures based on personal anecdotes, sweeping generalisations and his incomprehensible libido.


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