This post contains a nude image so I have the pleasure of telling you it’s NSFW.
A few months ago, Ella Dawson wrote a post about sexual harassment. It’s an excellent piece and she makes a lot of good points, but the quote that stayed with me is this:
“It is easy to find me on Facebook, and my Twitter feed is lively and seems unpolished, even though it is heavily curated. It is easy to feel like you know me.”
I thought of that quote earlier this week as I followed a discussion on a Facebook page about masks and writing erotica. I was going to comment on the thread, but my response got longer as it went farther afield so, rather than hijack the thread, I’m writing this.
Masks are a useful metaphor, one we often use to simplify complicated things – like personalities. But there’s a trap in the metaphor. Take Batman for example. Which is Bruce Wayne’s true self? The billionaire or the masked avenger? Every modern franchise touches on that question in some way, but there is no definitive answer, because Bruce Wayne doesn’t have one true self. He has two, and he performs both with equal “trueness” depending on the situation.
The mask metaphor is seductive in its simplicity, but whether you use a mask (like a pseudonym / alternate identity) to explore your life / art more freely, or whether you feel that you find yourself in the wearing of a mask , the metaphor implies that we have one fundamentally true “self” over which less true “masks” can be laid.
It’s a really attractive idea, but it discounts two things:
1. Identities aren’t static, nor are they mutually exclusive. I became a mother when my daughter was born, but that didn’t erase my other identities (writer, wife, lover, friend, etc.), nor did it make those selves any less true. I can write frankly and graphically about sex and still be a engaged, stable parent. I perform all of my selves with equal truth (sometimes simultaneously) depending on which context I’m in. No one truth is truer than the others.
2. Identity is behavioral. It’s something we perform for ourselves and for others. We engage our identities in a lot of different ways, but they all boil down to our behavior in different contexts. As our context changes, so does our behavior. Different facets of our personalties (i.e.: different selves) engage. It’s why a lover can “bring out the best in you”, or so called “nice people” can be jerks to waiters.
We give people access to different facets, or selves, through the actions and reactions we perform. But access to one facet doesn’t equal access all, nor does it mean that the facets we’re privy to are “truer” than those we aren’t. It also doesn’t mean that the hidden facets are any more authentic than those we see.
Part of what makes masks (and the implication one true self) seductive, is that the removing of a mask creates intimacy. While a private revelation is legitimately intimate, it’s important to remember that “unmasking” is a performance too. Despite the seductive intimacy, removing a mask simply means revealing something that was previously hidden. It doesn’t mean that the revealed thing is any “truer” than the things you consciously expose.
Which takes me back to Ella’s quote and the idea of curated truths.
Every time I dissect myself in an essay, I reveal something of who I am. That’s a choice I make because the intimacy it creates is important to me. I want to connect with the reader, and the only way to do that is to open myself up. But this doesn’t mean that the truths I expose in an essay, even the raw, difficult ones, aren’t fully curated. Every single facet I reveal gets exposed to support the narrative I need to communicate.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
This is a picture of me. I was going to use it for Sinful Sunday’s vintage prompt, but I didn’t end up posting it (I just wasn’t ready). That said, the experience of choosing and editing the image was interesting. As a writer, I wrestle with the impulse to control how I’m read, and I had the same impulse with the photo – the impulse to pin down the selves (i.e.: facets, identities, narratives, masks) it reveals.
So, to make my point about unmasking, here are some of the true selves that I considered revealing in the abandoned post.
1. Emotionally Unguarded Me: This is a test shot. I didn’t realize it was being taken, so what you’re seeing is what I often look like when I’m not paying attention – distracted, preoccupied and a little bit sad. This is me at rest. Me at rest is a little intense.
2. Overly Concerned, Serious Me: I’ve never participated in Sinful Sunday (though I want to) and I rarely post photographs of my face online. There’s a good reason for that, but it makes me sound like an asshole. When I was younger, I was dismissed in academic or professional contexts because of the way I look. I learned to downplay my appearance so people would take me seriously. Posting a nude of myself, especially in the context of my work, is uncomfortable because it goes against that grain.
3. Me With Hang-Ups: As I worked with this image, I kept trying to crop out my face or my breasts, but no matter what I did, it always looked wrong. For some reason, the fact that this picture reveals how small my breasts are bothered me more when my face was in the shot. Likewise, the relative vulnerability on my face bothered me less when my breasts weren’t visible. Apparently, one at a time was okay, but face + breasts revealed too much…. Heh, heh. Looks like the joke’s on me.
Which brings me to the self I’m revealing (in addition to the others) in this post….
4. The Me Who Says Fuck It: Because what the hell, why not. I’ve just “unmasked” myself by using the un-cropped nude and revealing my mixed feelings about this image. In doing so, I’ve revealed more than my tits and my face. I’ve given you a glimpse of my inner life. It’s an honest glimpse but, like all the other glimpses cataloged in this blog, it’s a curated one. I selected the details and framed them to illustrate the myth of the one true self and support the post’s narrative.
The unmasking I just performed revealed true things, but it did not reveal everything. There is no single, definitive me to reveal, which means that there is nothing to shield me from misinterpretation. You could take what you’ve read and say that I’m full of shit. Or pretentious as fuck. Or a small breasted basket case. Or an ego driven slut. Or, or, or… Because I can’t hand you my one true self, there will always be a gap between what the world sees, and the whole of who I am.
It’s that gap that we try to fill, through communication and curation. We all try to control our narratives, whether we’re writing a post or chatting with a friend (“I’m great! Prison isn’t so bad after all!”). We curate ourselves to reveal the facets that will help us connect, while downplaying those that may compromise us within a given context.
In the end, we all wear masks – multiple masks – that serve or reveal our various true selves. For some of us, the lines that mark our identities are thick and bold. For others, the lines are blurred. But for all off us, the truth lies deep in the aggregate, not in the threads we pull.