Perhaps it’s appropriate that I’ve had a Michael Jackson song stuck in my head for the past week. It’s not “Thriller,” despite the fact that I’m a card-carrying member of the original MTV generation. It’s not “Beat It,” or “Bad,” or even some of my favorite earlier stuff, like “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” or “Blame it on the Boogie.”
The song? “Who is It?”
But here’s the thing – read the lyrics from the second verse, and think about MJ’s metamorphosis from adorable kid, to handsome, charismatic young black man, to his final incarnation as a sexually ambiguous person hiding behind a surgically-structured mask:
I am the damned.
I am the dead.
I am the agony inside
The dying head.
This is injustice.
Woe unto there
I pray this punishment
Would have mercy on me.
I had dinner with some friends the other night, and found myself in the midst of the biggest collection of genetic lottery winners that I’d seen in a while. All women, all tall and gorgeous, some with exotic accents and stepchildren visiting from far-away locations like Sweden.
I sat there in my little linen shift and just felt … dumpy. Felt kind of worthless, despite the fact that I have a master’s degree and a pretty serious job, have been successfully raising a child on my own for a number of years, and have been told more than once that I am beautiful.
I will absolutely cop to suffering from body dysmorphic disorder. I’m constitutionally incapable of looking at pictures of myself. I hide from the camera, despite the fact that I’m a normal-sized person (actually, a slimmer-than-normal-sized-person, if you read the latest national health survey). The funny thing is that, when I do find a picture of myself, usually years later, my general response is: You look just fine. What were you thinking?
It makes me wonder what I would be, if I had been turned loose into a sea of unending work, overwhelming adulation, and seemingly limitless resources … like Michael Jackson. Would I keep hacking away at myself, trying to achieve an image that someone, somewhere at some point definitively convinced me was the right way to look? Drown my pain in an eternal string of surgeries and procedures? Dull it with drugs and alcohol? Or would I find the strength somewhere, deep down, to accept myself as I am?
I remember what a friend said when Heath Ledger died: “The business just uses them up. Sucks the life out of them.” We could see that something was draining the life out of Michael, as surely as we could see the changes in his appearance. Why did we keep right on worshiping him? Why did we continue to reward his very public self-immolation? Why would we take someone so singularly gifted and allow him to burn himself to a crisp? And why do we repeat the pattern over and over, infecting our children – particularly our daughters?
A few years ago, when I was going through a hideous divorce (is there any other kind?), I was under the care of a particularly amazing therapist with a Jungian bent. I had this recurring dream where a thin, blonde woman would follow me around and yell at me, telling me what a failure I was. Finally, in desperation, I would kill her, and bury her in the woods somewhere. Then I’d wake up in a cold sweat, convinced that I was guilty of murder. Instead of telling me I was a monster, my therapist pointed out that I was simply getting rid of my internal critic: my soul was struggling mightily to set itself free. Once I grasped her point, the blonde woman disappeared. Although she still occasionally shows up, at dinner, with an exotic stepdaughter from Sweden. And then, instead of killing her, I generally want to kill myself.
Who was MJ’s thin blonde woman? And did he see her in the mirror every day, telling him what a failure he was?
I accept the fact that we live in a visually-centric media world, and that the camera is kindest to the thinnest among us. But I also say this: we created the camera. That puts us in charge. We should not, in turn, let it create us. We are so much more than the two-dimensional images we leave behind. Embracing that should be our life’s work.
Now, please excuse me, I’ve got some moonwalking to do.
Originally posted on rumournation.vox.com