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Nose Rings and Narcissism

By Elizabeth L. Wurtzel

THIS article is going to be about affectations.

But first, I'd like to take time out to talk about my nose ring. I'd like to discuss this particular idiosyncratic affect of mine, even though you probably haven't caught a glimpse of me or it, because everyone who does see it for the first time can't help noticing it ("There's a hole in your nose!"), wondering about it ("Does that hurt?"), complimenting it ("That's really, um, neat.") or finding it disgusting ("Why did you ruin your face that way?")

In other words, people have the typical reaction to my nose ring that they have to most affectations, which is to say that they pay them undue attention, which is pretty much the point of having them. I must admit, mine is a bit more obvious than usual since it is smack in the middle of my face, or to be more precise, it's slightly right of center (an odd fact considering that I consider myself quite a bit left of center; but I already have five holes in my left ear lobe--another affectation I'll get to later--so I need my right nostril to balance out my face, if not my politics).

Aside from the obvious aesthetic advantages of wearing a diamond nose post, I will admit that it is also a statement: It's a refusal to compromise, it's my way of saying, "My way or the highway." Having this bit of jewel in my nose means I cannot get a job on Wall Street and it means I don't attract the kind of men who wouldn't be attracted to the kind of woman who wears a stud in her nose. I don't think I'm missing much.

So in the end, affectations are really a form of group identification ("People who share my beliefs have long hair so I do too"), or, in many cases, they are a form of group denial ("I'm a Republican and I voted for Bush but I can still have long hair.")

Since it is so hard to tell these days why people are affecting certain looks--is it to look affected, disaffected or just plain unaffected?--I've figured out some categories:

Mass-market: This is the most common kind, as the name reveals, and its proliferation can be explained by the commercialization of fads. It's part and parcel of the slumming trend, which as we know is the desire for the way-too-comfortable to look like they have street sense. The problem is that by the time the upper middle class has caught on to a look (or attitude), it's already been abandoned by its place of origin. If I know about it, it must be passe.

The examples are easy. The Madonna look. Torn stockings. Tie-dye. Tattered jeans. Multiple ear pierces. A man with long hair or an earring. And, of course, the miniskirt, which, some may recall, was once upon a time a youthquaking look of radical chic and rebellion. Now businesswomen wear them.

It should be noted that while some "real" rebels still maintain their now mass-marketed affectations, claiming that they've always had them and are somehow better or truer than the trendy folks who've just caught on, if they've thought it through enough to come to that conclusion, they're probably deluding themselves.

The Committed: These are affectations or adornments that are either (1) uncomfortable and unpleasant, and hence indicate a true believer/martyr/fashion slave, or (2) that have not quite yet achieved mass-market status, and hence are still daring enough to alter the course of the bearer's life a bit.

Examples of the former might be someone who wears cowboy boots in the summer time, what with the Greenhouse Affect and all, or a person who wears a beret, which is a pain in the ass, all the time, or anyone who wears a safety pin in his cheek, which is just plain painful, for any amount of time. On the same track, people who only wear light jackets in freezing weather, supposedly because they believe them-selves to be weatherproof but mostly because they are trying to be cool (both physically and mentally), are also representative of this sort of affectedness.

The latter subcategory includes mohawks, noserings and hair dyed to an obviously fake black (other colors--like pink and purple--will be considered in the ugly affectations category), all looks that are fairly acceptable and presentable, but so noticeable and well, strange, that they still have not been standardized. But give it a few years...coming soon to a shopping mall near you.

The Natural: These affectations are not to be blamed on the bearer, because they are genetic. Like a mole just above your chin--which many forties starlets actually painted on--or platinum blonde or bright red hair that isn't bottled. Or a large chest that isn't silicone.

Of course there are some natural conditions that so many people correct, that leaving them be is an affectation, even if it shouldn't be. A woman not shaving her legs or not coloring her grey hair are both such affectations.

The Ugly: The philosophy behind this one is that most people are trying to make themselves look more attractive, so why not be truly original and try to make oneself look ugly? After all, beauty is only skin deep, but ugliness can be rotten to the core.

And most people who make their skin pasty white, dye their hair in Crayola colors and then don't wash it (or them-selves) for weeks at a time are trying to convey a look that says, I am above the commercial, consumerist, patriarchal brand-name brand of beauty that the glamour tyrants on TV or in magazines are trying to impose on us.

These people want to create their own ideal of Beauty. It's called Ugly. And it is.

Pretensions: These are obvious. Smoking unfiltered Camels.

Smoking anything without inhaling. Cooking with pine nuts. Drinking espresso, even though it tastes awful. Drinking San Pelligrino water instead of Perrier, or Perrier instead of club soda. Joining an unworthy cause. Talking about Decon-structionism or unloading your artistic/thesis anxiety on any available listener. Calling yourself an artist. Going to Harvard.

Anti-affectations: This is my favorite category, since its bearers can justify themselves as practical, reasonable or typical. This category allows everything--short of complete oblivion--to be ultimately viewed as affectations, which allows for more cynicism, always a good thing, to exist in the world.

The obvious and now trite example of this is the woman who spends hours putting on her make-up to achieve the natural look, or the woman who gets her hair streaked so that she can appear to have just returned from Bermuda.

My favorite of the ever-favored anti-affectations are horn-or wire-rimmed glasses, a.k.a., spectacles. Just about everyone I know who wears glasses wears them because, after years of trying to find "fashion" frames to fit our faces, they have surrendered. They are happy to wear these at best non-existent and at worst ugly face braces because they are better than trying and failing to find flattering eye wear.

And that is the key to pulling off any affectation. You must not look like you're trying to do anything. Use any excuse or alibi--I like it, I think it looks good, it's all that was available, I did it on a dare--but never ever admit to an affectation.

That's just not affected enough.

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