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David Bouchier: As Others See Us

A bust of Franz Liszt
Image by Jolanta Dyr from Pixabay
A bust of Franz Liszt

Self-image has always been a problem for our species. We worry far too much about how we look. A cat or a cockroach doesn’t fret about its appearance, but we humans have whole industries dedicated to making us appear better, more stylish and more attractive than we are.

But, in this new head-and shoulders world, our self-image is often reduced to postage-stamp size by the use of video services like Zoom and Skype. We appear in public only partially, like those decorative busts of famous people that used to be so popular. In real life there’s so much more. The majority of us are not just head and shoulders, we go all the way down to the ground, and we have a back as well as a front. Two dimensions and one angle are just not enough to capture the whole person.

We use the rather derogatory term “talking heads” to describe TV news reporters and commentators. Who can trust a head, however articulate, without a body? And yet the talking heads hold our attention because of their closeness and intimacy. Alan Bennett created a highly original TV series called “Talking Heads” in which the actors were just that, and their isolated heads riveted your attention. You couldn’t look away from them. Samuel Beckett used a similar device in some of his stage plays, where nothing but the heads of the actors appeared. Now we’re all talking heads, and life in the age of Zoom is like one non-stop animated selfie.

Not everybody feels badly about this. Consider the advantages. On screen, as in a selfie, much can be hidden and much can be changed — not only the possibly disreputable lower half of the body but all the subtle signals given off by anxious hands or restless feet that may give away more of our real feelings than the carefully-controlled face.

It may be that the top third of our body is the best part, and that two dimensions give the most flattering perspective. Most of us are not very fond of our own rear view, if we ever see it. On the small screen, nobody sees it. A talking head has much less surface area to worry about. There’s not so much to dress and comb and make up, leading to a great saving in clothes and shoes. You can wear your oldest jeans, or even pajama bottoms and slippers, all day every day, which is the very definition of comfort.

Technology is coming to our aid, as usual and at a price. There are many enhancements available to improve our incompleteness — exotic backgrounds, flattering filters and entire virtual images that you can substitute for your own. The camera can and does lie, as it has always done, and as sycophantic portrait painters did before photography came along, which is why we have so little idea what famous people in the past really looked like. Voices can be enhanced too. We have so much more control over our image. Our top half, suitably groomed and improved, may look and sound better than our complete physical self could ever hope to be.

On balance, then, this new half-life can be seen as a kind of liberation. Not only do we save time, expense and effort but our screen image can become an alternate and better self. On radio of course, we understood this long ago, which is why we stay completely invisible.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.