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					Marchant Davenport
Essay #3
ENGL1100 / Ms. VanSlooten
March 20, 2002


                             Self-Image/Consciousness:
                   Maile Meloy’s “The Voice of the Looking-Glass”


       Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a beauty pageant here at Auburn

University. Seeing that it was a Student Government Association event and I sat on SGA,

I volunteered to help out. When I originally signed my name to the list, I viewed it as an

interesting experience. It certainly was an interesting experience, but in a very

disheartening sense. I became quite aware of the great pains that are undertaken by or for

women for the glorification of mere physical appearance. As the swimsuit portion of the

event took place, I couldn‟t help feeling that the girls were buying into a world that Maile

Meloy informatively describes in “The Voice of the Looking-Glass” as “one in which,

like it or not, [they] must continually impress men” (19). Inexorably tied to the essay as

both the author and participant, Meloy herself is trapped in such a world and may seek to

remain there, but she has at least taken the first steps towards freedom in realizing her

existence in what John Berger calls “an allotted and confined space…the keeping of

men” (114).

       Meloy has always been self-conscious about her appearance “from the moment

[she] became conscious of cause and effect” (17) and presents many examples of her

trapped state. Whether clinging to a photograph, looking at her passing reflection,

examining her relationship with her mother, comparing herself to other women, or
analyzing a homeless woman, she is constantly aware of the image that she presents to

the world.

       In her first example, she talks about a photograph taken of her at graduation that

caught her “in a spontaneous, joyful moment.” She declares, “It is the way I want to be

seen in everyday, spontaneous moments…I am pleased with the image” (17). Certainly,

or at least hopefully, everyone has a similar photo that captures what he/she believes is

his/her essence. Occasionally, someone asks her for the photo, and Meloy wants to refuse

because of the dear place that it holds. Using flowery language, she recognizes how she

“blurts narcissistically”, but doesn‟t wish to appear that way. In this example, she

demonstrates that she‟s observing herself (liking the photo), and further observing that

observation (realizing her attachment to the photo), in an effort to present a proper image.

       Constantly worrying about her appearance and other people‟s impressions of her

continues to be very evident in the Meloy‟s next account of her habit of glancing in

mirrors and windows to survey herself. Yet, she mentions her ability to avoid lingering,

lest “voyeurs behind the glass see [her] interest in [her] own image,” and makes the

assurance to the reader, “This self-observation is not vanity” (18). She‟s claiming instead

to merely be seeking approval. Thus, when she unconsciously presents her right side to

people, it‟s not only an attempt to provide them with a pretty face, but also a reflection of

her larger personality. The right side of her face represents the side of herself that she

wants everyone to see – beautiful, but free of vanity. The left side of her face that she

hides is the side that makes itself present when she forgets herself, and stops worrying

about appearances. Yet, she can‟t stop presenting the right side. She has been taught

“meticulous self-observation” (19) to a point where it has become almost innate.




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       Always analyzing, Meloy compares and contrasts herself with her mother, who is

described as “five feet two, beautiful and blonde, [and] a southern-Californian ex-

Homecoming Queen” (18). In this particular anecdote, the idea that she has “bought into

the system,” as her mother did, seems strikingly evident. Meloy seems almost resentful

that her mother would wish unattractiveness upon her or would display hypocrisy by

deploring the system yet still participating. She fears taking upon her mother‟s

appearance, saying, “I wish I could look forward to such changes, to rejoice in the inner

richness that replaces outward worth, but I shudder with the vanity of youth and dread the

wrinkles and sagging flesh of age. I delight with Snow White that I am still „the fairest of

them all‟” (19). In these statements, and in contradiction to later ones, she has made it

quite clear that she wishes to remain in her trapped state. It seems that she would be quite

at home filling in the title role of Oscar Wilde‟s The Portrait Of Dorian Gray.

       Further convicting herself of vanity, she notes the “intimidation and jealousy” that

she experiences when comparing herself to other women (19). And yet, she notes that

most women hate the trap and the hostility that comes when looking at each other from a

man‟s perspective. Unfortunately though, she echoes Berger, “But we learn it as we learn

to walk and to wear our hair in pigtails the way daddy likes it. It is our way of surviving

in the world we are born into: one in which, like it or not, we must continually impress

men” (19). When something is taught from “the onset of puberty,” and reiterated

consistently, it becomes a vice from which it is almost impossible to escape. The effort to

break free may be there, but the habit holds a tight grip. Thus, when a prettier girl walks

into the room, the tension level mounts. There‟s an air of competition – who can receive

more approval from men.




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       In her final example, Meloy recognizes some of the futility inherent the process of

appearance and more fully recognizes the trap. Walking down the street, she notices a

homeless woman wearing make-up. The image is utterly ugsome, or horrid, to her, and

she describes the woman in great detail. The woman is a mess, smeared with make-up,

and stares off into her own world. From such a description, Meloy recognizes the

judgmental nature that she had. Only later does the realization hit her: “This poor, ill

woman, to whom her own made-up self is more important than food, exists at the outer

edge of the obsession with appearance that women learn from childhood” (20).

       In the next to last paragraph she sums up her plea for herself:

               I do not want to be John Berger‟s pathetically trapped woman, to merely

       „appear,‟ and to be a composite of other people‟s perceptions of me. I do not want

       to value appearance over action, but I cannot escape the habit of constantly having

       one eye on my own image. In mirrors and windows, in photographs, in other

       people‟s glances, and in my own mind I am haunted by images of myself. I am

       continually critiquing my appearance, my reactions, my gestures, and my speech.

       I am…already in conspiracy with the made-up old woman in the street. (20)

Meloy seems to fully realize what she is doing, but cannot seem to extricate herself from

it. She is trapped, but at least she recognizes the box. Many women go through life trying

to please men all the time without ever questioning what they are doing. Actually, quite

often they might question „what‟ as a result of always self-analyzing, but very rarely will

they go into the motivation behind the whole process. Meloy examines the situation, asks

for change, but never really presents any sort of viable alternative. She sounds resigned to

becoming the image that she so fears. The closing lines, “She sees Snow White fading




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and growing old and yet she clings to the façade. It is what she knows” (20) suggest this

resignation. She has been obsessing over appearance for so long, in every aspect of her

life, with everyone she knows and sees (her mother, the homeless woman, etc), that she

cannot escape the tendency to glorify physical beauty. There is nothing else that she

knows.



Works Cited:

Meloy, Malie. “The Voice of the Looking-Glass.” Encounters: Essays for Explanation &

         Inquiry. Eds. Pat Hoy III and Robert DiYanni. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2000. 17-20.

Berger, John. “The Voice of the Looking-Glass.” Encounters: Essays for Explanation &

         Inquiry. Eds. Pat Hoy III and Robert DiYanni. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2000.114-115.




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