Sense Of Self | Pushing the Wave

Sense Of Self

Opinion, 5 May 2023
by L.A. Davenport
Vous Etes Beaux Graffiti in Marseille
Vous êtes beaux. Graffiti spotted in Marseille, France
This week, the sun came out, at least where I am right now, and after continuous rain and grey skies it is not only a relief but also I feel as bright and bouncy as the flowers that are finally having their moment in the sun.

And suddenly, all is green. Leaves have appeared seemingly from nowhere to fill all the gaps in between the grey and brown that dominates life in winter.

In our small household the smiles have come a little easier this week, and having felt more motivated to get out a camera and snap happy moments, I have been thinking about what it means in our age to take photographs and share them.

Children, at least nowadays, see themselves all the time, in pictures, in videos and on video calls, almost from the moment they are born. Especially if you live a long way from family members, as most of us do, the notion of seeing oneself is a weekly, if not daily, occurrence for a child today.

But what does it mean for how they see and understand themselves?

When I was young, I had no real idea what I looked like, apart from the odd school photo from time to time or the infrequent grainy holiday snap, and I didn’t really care. On the rare occasion when I looked at photographs, it was more to see relatives whom I knew slightly than to look at myself.

I was surprised recently to find that my family have an entire treasure trove of photographs from my childhood. I had no idea. They certainly never got them out to reminisce and tell me about past adventures, or even our daily life. I had, in fact, laboured under the impression that we didn’t have any record of our past at all.

The result of all this was that not only did I not really know, apart from glances in the mirror when I cleaned my teeth or checked my clothing was on straight, or care about what I looked like, but also I didn’t really think too much about how anyone else looked.

Until I got to the Big City and was a teenager, I can say with all honesty that no one at school was bothered about what we wore or what we looked like, unless one was particularly unkempt or dirty or unusual, and so could be labelled as a some sort of gypsy. Appearance was merely there for identification, so that one knew who was who, and who was not who.

It was partly, of course, because there was no such thing as children’s fashion where I lived, and at that time. There was no concept of having the ‘right’ shoes or the most ‘in’ trousers, which certainly was the case when I went to the Big School. It was something of a shock when I was told I was absolutely not wearing the right kind of gear. I didn’t realise there was such a thing.

I don’t even remember my parents taking me clothes shopping when I was a nipper. I simply had clothes, and that was that. It never crossed my mind to question from where they came.

My belief is that the relentless marketing of children’s fashion as more than a desire and actually a necessity can really take off only when kids are aware of how they look, and more importantly have an expectation of how they should look. And of course the corollary of such thinking is vanity, which comes when one realises that one can compare oneself favourably with others.

What does it do to a young child to be confronted constantly with their appearance, and believe that it matters? I have no idea, because that is not at all how I lived. Yet this latest generation are submerged in a sea of photographs, images and videos of themselves, and demand to look at them.

How will their sense of self, even the structure of their brains, be different from those of people born before the introduction of the smartphone and photo sharing? Should we be worried? Maybe not, but we cannot expect that they will see things in the same way as I and my contemporaries do.

Only time will tell, but something I have noticed often in recent years in a rise in the need for people to tell themselves and be told that they are beautiful. Why? Why beautiful? Why that specific adjective?

I am reminded of Martin Luther King, who said: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

He was of course talking about race and racism, and its appalling consequences. He was talking about people of colour being free in their own homes and in their own land, and having the same rights as citizens who looked different from them, but inside were the same.

This obsession we have with appearance doesn’t appear to be about race and racism on the surface, and perhaps the link with Martin Luther King seems tenuous.

Unless, that is, one looks at, to take one simple but pernicious example, skin lightening, in which people try to make themselves paler. In the words of the British Skin Foundation, it “is a common practice in certain communities where lighter skin is a sign of prominence, superiority and higher social ranking”.

Why? Why, after all we have been through to try to overcome barriers placed in front of people simply because of their appearance in general and the colour of their skin in particular, would anyone sanction that?

I suspect that, thanks to the ubiquity of photographs and, in particular, selfies, our obsession with appearance has, to put it kindly, been democratised. My concern is that, for the children of the current generation looking at themselves constantly, the problem will only get worse.

One could try to be optimistic and look to all those good people who are trying to limit their children’s exposure to self-regard, but I am not that hopeful.
Well, I am quite worn out after posing so many questions that, at least for now, remain unanswerable.

In terms of my writing, this week I have been plodding (I think there is no other word for it) along with my follow-up to My Life as a Dog. I am generally happy with what I have done so far, although it will need quite a bit of work to tightened it up and make it shine.

It is tempting to think of completing the first draft of a book as a job almost done, but as any writer knows it is nothing of the sort.

To whet your appetite in the meantime, I have put up on here another short story from my collection Dear Lucifer and Other Stories.

Manhole came in a single flood one day when I wanted to create something off-the-cuff for my then blog, The Marching Band Emporium. I imagined a rather posh young man who had been out on his stag do and, while paralytically drunk, had had to endure a prank being played on him by his so-called friends. He lives the consequences all too well, as you will see.

When I was trying to picture this chap, for some unknown reason I had in mind Billy Bunter, who, for those who do not know him, was a character in stories at the beginning of the 20th century set in Greyfriars School, a fictional English public school in Kent.

The voice for our hero came from somewhere else; in fact, from someone I knew at university: a posh lad with an apologetic tone, and who never wanted to cause offence or trouble anyone. A diffident fellow, one might say, made so by the realisation of his immense privilege. His friends were less sympathetic.

I hope you enjoy the resulting story.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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Sense Of Self | Pushing the Wave