MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE WALL: Society’s complicity in breeding in narcissism
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”
Most of us probably remember this question by the vain queen in the fairy tale: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” written by the Grimms brothers.
As innocent children this was just another story about good triumphing over evil and we paid more attention to the moral values it promoted while missing out on the fundamental issues raised beyond its entertainment value. What we probably did not realise, was the underlying personality disorder of narcissism suffered by the queen. Sadly, this trait besaddles a large section of our society today.
Narcissism is the personality trait of egotism, vanity, conceit, or simple selfishness. The name "narcissism" was coined by Freud after Narcissus who in a Greek myth was a pathologically self-absorbed young man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool . While in adults a healthy dose of narcissism allows the individual's perception of his needs to be balanced in relation to others, in psychology and psychiatry, excessive narcissism is recognized as a severe personality dysfunction or personality disorder, most characteristically Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) .
According to the fairy tale, Snow White’s step mother, the queen, asked her mirror daily: "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the loveliest lady in the land?" The reply was always; "You are, your Majesty." This daily ritual took a new twist one day when the mirror replied: "Snow White is the loveliest in the land." Infuriated and filled with jealousy, the stepmother plotted to get rid of her rival. The queen was willing to kill in order to remain the most beautiful woman in the land and went to the extent of giving the little girl a poisoned apple just so she could eliminate competition.
The fairy tale places emphasis on outward beauty, a theme that is carried through most fairy tales and creates an obsession with good looks at an early age. From childhood, our minds are trained to value beauty above other qualities and this is more pronounced in girls than boys. Sadly, it also colours the way men view women. Such perceptions can either make or break the individual’s confidence. Although some people rise beyond these tags of being beautiful or ugly, and earn respect for their achievements, looks remain the primary defining factor for most who achieve very little in life.
In our current context, the death that Snow White’s step mother tried to execute on her unwitting young rival may not be literal, but people are willing to go to great lengths to eliminate competition and be branded the most beautiful. Beauty, of course, in this case has a very narrow definition, usually limited to specific Caucasian features as we have been socialised to believe that these are more acceptable than others. This view starts when we are exposed to fairytales like “Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping beauty,” among others, and is perpetuated through images that are reinforced in the media. A tall slim body, a narrow petit nose, fair skin, a prominent forehead, perfect teeth, high cheek bones and silky long hair are among some of the features that supposedly epitomise beauty. Not surprisingly, those of us who were born without any of these features either have to go through great pain to attain them, or stubbornly cling to the self-belief and conviction that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” against the tide of a world that believes otherwise.
So strong is the pressure to conform to the prevailing standard of beauty, that people go to all kinds of extremes to fit the bill. During my growing years, cheeks with dimples were part of the beauty package. I remember a friend of mine sitting for hours on end, with elbows on knees, chin in palms and index fingers thrust deeply into her cheeks in order to bore holes and acquire the much desired dimples. This continued for some years until attending biology class convinced her that if she was not born with it, she was not likely to acquire it. Needless to say her cheeks are still as chubby and dimple-free as ever, if not chubbier thanks to weight added by maturity and child bearing.
However, technology has overtaken the era of learning to like what you were born with, and now, if you have the money, you can buy the features you like. Hollyhood is the chief culprit, constantly bombarding us with images of perfect people and telling us it’s not alright to be ordinary. However, rather than rebel against this misguided message, most of us willingly comply with this artificial pop culture and the erroneous gospel that “if you don’t like it, change it.” Television programmes like Dr. 90210, Extreme Makeover, and Bridal Plasty among many others tell the gullible public how you can change your face, reshape your booty and even transform the parts that the public will never get to see! Like sheep to the slaughter, we foolishly allow ourselves to be misled, much to the detriment of our society.
Cosmetic surgery has become cheap and made good looks accessible to all.
• Got mustard seeds for boobs? You can get breast implants and wake up with melons after just a few hours under
• Do you lack the discipline to exercise? Why not get some form of “suction” and re-emerge looking like Barbie?
• Unhappy with your face? Well, that’s the easiest, Michael Jackson, king of pop and chief hater of natural self
demonstrated how that can be transformed. You can also regain your youthful looks through the same procedure,
although sadly it will not arrest the aging process.
• Despise your height? How about bone extension surgery then you’ll be taller, even though you might not grow to
be a six foot model.
• Hate the colour of your eyes? That’s easy, just buy tinted contact lenses and become blue eyed.
• Resent your complexion? How about de-pigmentation?
• Don’t like your coarse hair? Simply treat it with chemicals or buy a weave and it need not be artificial, you can get
a Brazilian weave that will last longer and is more real.
• Feeling trapped in the wrong body? You can become a transgender.
• Hate your privates? There are plenty of solutions to that too!
You can change any part of you, anyhow and anytime, as long as you have the financial means to do so. Sadly though, there are no guarantees that you’ll fall in love with yourself after the changes and some of the newly acquired features may not be sustainable, e.g the new trim body in the absence of exercise.
What this narcissistic culture neglects to tell, is the truth that if you struggle with self acceptance, that problem will not go away just because you have transformed a body part. People with psychological and social problems need long-term counselling, not surgery.
It has been noted that some of the people who undergo cosmetic surgery have an underlying problem of a low self esteem and are likely to become serial patients or addicts of this type of surgery. Unfortunately, some of them hate the new self after each procedure and wish they could reverse the process, but alas, it will be too late.
“If your self-esteem is so low that you view yourself through a filter of self-rejection ("I'm ugly" or "I'm fat"), all the surgery in the world isn't going to make a difference. If you don't change the filter through which you look when you see yourself in the mirror, you'll never be happy,” according to Dr. Phil and I couldn’t agree more!
Clearly, one of the real issues that need to be addressed is that of self acceptance. Whitney Houston had it right in the 1980s hit song “The Greatest Love,” when she sang “Learning to love yourself is the greatest, love of all.”
I know a lady who underwent de-pigmentation recently and turned up for work a different colour! Her clients could not recognise her and she clearly needed time to adjust to her new self. I wouldn’t be surprised if, upon seeing her, the boss asked why there were unauthorised personnel in the premises. Sadly, up to now, almost a year after the process, she still carries herself as if there is a stranger in her body and everyone around her is still trying to get used to her. Further, she has to keep out of the sun. How sad is that! Also, I cannot guarantee that she is any happier now than she was before.
As society, I think we ought to go back to basics. We are the society that makes the rules and we can change them – although pop culture has the greater say when we allow it. If we all, individually, place less emphasis on people’s outward appearance and choose to focus on their other qualities, then collectively, we can change the world. After all, it’s the invisible and intangible qualities of warmth, love, kindness, patience, friendliness, meekness, sweetness, consideration that make the world go round. These are precious and noticeable regardless of a person’s physical appearance, so why not place more emphasis on them?
We also have to teach ourselves self acceptance, and pass that culture on to the next generation. We need to relearn that it is alright to have a fat nose, chubby cheeks, course hair, short legs and whatever else people are trying to change about themselves.
We need to remind ourselves that as long as you love who you are, the world will follow suit. If you appreciate yourself, so will everyone else. Yes, people may tease you at first, but guess what? They’ll soon get used to your features and life goes on! Come to think of it, people are generally too busy getting on with their lives to care about whether your nose is pinched or your bra size is a 38! Besides, the world’s most good looking and richest people are not necessarily the happiest.
Above all, though, we need to come to terms with the reality that there is more to a person than their outward appearance and that real beauty stems from deep within an individual. Instead of spending huge sums of money transforming the appearance, why not divert those funds towards a worthy cause, spend time in introspection and change the inside because ultimately, that is where real beauty lies. Sipho Gumede’s jazz track “Peacocks today, feather dusters tomorrow,” should remind us that outward beauty fades and in the end, people will remember your intangible qualities that made a difference to their lives!