David Bouchier: Putting On Appearances

Jun 25, 2018

A steady stream of advertising material pours into our mailbox, and yours too I’m sure. It has been estimated that the average American, whoever he or she is, sees five thousand advertisements every day, so it is hard verging on impossible for advertisers to capture anybody’s attention. One sneaky trick is to put your name in a prominent position on the printed material. Nobody can resist seeing their own name in print. An example came the other day, a flashy card with the bold headline: “Time for new makeup, David?” Well, I thought contemplating my face in the mirror, it probably is time. Perhaps some of these chemicals in their pretty colored jars, illustrated on the card, would make me look younger, or at least different.

But why should I want to look different? Dogs don’t mind being dogs all their lives, and cats positively adore being cats. But nothing defines us humans so much as our desire to appear to be something else, which may explain the impulse to dress up at Halloween, weddings, and on other occasions when anonymity may be useful. We love the idea of the makeover, the dramatic transformation, the sudden effortless leap from one state of being to another. There’s nothing new about this. Like most things, the ancient Greeks got there first. Their myths are full of transformations although, because they had a pessimistic view of life and fate, these were often of a negative kind. The gods could change themselves into animals, birds, or humans, and sometimes got stuck in that embarrassing state. They would transform each other out of malice, or just for fun. Daphne, the beautiful daughter of a river god, for example, was demoted into a laurel tree, Narcissus and Hyacinthus became flowers. It wasn’t much better in Biblical times. Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt for some minor infraction of the rules. 

In our more optimistic culture we give a positive spin to the instant makeover. Some of our most popular legends and fairy tales tell how an ordinary person, through luck or magic, turns into something extraordinary. Men become celebrities or billionaires, women become media stars or, even better, princesses, like Cinderella, or Princess Meghan. In the Wizard of Oz the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion all dreamed of getting a makeover, although they didn’t need one. Batman, Superman, Harry Potter, and all the other superheroes and heroines dreamed up by Hollywood are appealing precisely because of this chameleon quality.

The fantasy of instant self-transformation has moved beyond old-fashioned fairy tales into the fairy tale world of television. Programs like American Idol promise instant wealth and celebrity, numerous makeover shows offer transformative advice on fashions, plastic surgery, fitness, fatness, and even, improbably, good manners. In the dream world of makeover, we can transfigure our homes, our gardens, our children, and even our pets. But it’s all cosmetic – about how to impress other people by putting on appearances. Only one thing is immune from this passion for sudden and dramatic improvement, and that is the hidden world of the mind. Unless I’m missing something, I haven’t heard a TV show that claims to improve the mind, although this may be the makeover that some of us most urgently need.

Copyright: David Bouchier