Flying back to Atlanta after spring break, I talked on the plane to a young woman in her early 20s. She had just graduated from Rutgers (N.J.) and now was working in Alpharetta. Within 30 minutes of sitting down, this stranger started telling me how self-conscious she felt as a Chinese-American while studying abroad in Hong Kong during her junior year of college.
"The first thing I noticed was how skinny the guys and girls were," Barbara (whose name I found out later) said. "I knew that I could never look like them, so I didn't even try. No shopping at the trendy stores for me," she laughed.
Although Barbara may have meant her comments in jest, the fact she voiced them to a complete stranger tells me she was thinking about her image when I sat down beside her. It also tells me everybody has a hang-up about themselves and that self-deprecation does not discriminate based on gender, race or creed.
The skinniest person I know is a 22-year-old African-American male friend who is Mr. Popular in the local Atlanta indie-rock-punk scene. At the places he hangs out--mainly at a bar called Lenny's and various dives around Cabbagetown and Little Five Points--the men are skinnier than the women. Their pants are skintight, their beer is PBR, their drug of choice is cocaine and their disease of choice is anorexia. While casual observers of my friend and his crew may think they're just "setting a trend," insiders know unruly demons reside inside the body of the scene's most confident hipster.
It is this dichotomy between image and reality that I thought about when I wrote the poem "Opening Night." Last spring I attended the Atlanta Opera's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute at the Fox Theatre and jotted down my experience in a 62-line, free-verse narrative.
When I first sat down to write, I was not thinking about the feelings that would later express themselves in this poem. Rather, I created the first draft with the intention of expressing the emotions I felt when the older, posh crowd of "regulars" immediately dismissed all people younger than 30 at the show, with biting remarks like "keep climbing" and "go as high as you can" as my friends and I entered the door. They were referring, of course, to our social status and apparent lack of furs, diamonds and platinum dye jobs.
I wrote "Opening Night" in second person, addressing the reader as "you," to form a relationship with readers so they could imagine themselves as the speaker of the poem.
In the controversial memoir The Prisoner's Wife , Asha Bandele uses second person in the chapter, "a wedding at the prison." In this chapter, Bandele describes the hours before becoming a prisoner's wife, waiting for the prison van to pick you up before 5 in the morning with your white dress, not on, but rather crumpled in a bag at your feet.
While Bandele gives new meaning to premarital "cold feet" through her ability to raise goosebumps on the reader's neck, I strived for a connection between the reader and the thoughts of the speaker in "Opening Night." More than anything, I want readers to understand how someone's feelings can evolve from disgust to sympathy and, eventually, empathy.
After the speaker in "Opening Night" is offended by an older woman who cuts in front of her while waiting to use the restroom, the speaker feels a sense of superiority over the woman, stating "Her Jackie O.-gone-wrong eyeglass rims/ and mismatched suit make you want to say,/ who are you to talk? If you could see past/ her wrinkles and silver streaked hair, you would tell/ her that even though you're young, you still/ matter."
The speaker overhears the conversation between this "overdone poodle" of a woman and her "stocky smiley" friend, becomes interested and begins eavesdropping. The "poodle" tells her friend she "married to escape" her parents when she was a sophomore in college because her father would not let her move to New York as a single white female, so she ran off.
Although the speaker has been socially snubbed by the woman, she feels sorry for her and other women of her generation, a time when "girls did not live alone, you attended/ college for your MRS degree, or else you welcomed/ spinsterhood, so you settled." The speaker's heart breaks when the woman admits to never actually loving her husband, declaring, "He knew that." At this point, the speaker's feelings toward the woman have turned from disgust to sympathy.
Then, the speaker puts herself in the woman's place: "You imagine/ living in a dead-end marriage for the sake/ of marriage, so you can have that apartment,/ those clothes, that life." She thinks of an uncle "who only speaks to his wife when he feels hungry" and stares at the Egyptian god "Anubis/ weighing the heart of a deceased man as he passes/ through the rites that will grant him entrance/ into the afterlife" before her, an ornamentation of the theater's bathroom fireplace.
At the same time that the speaker becomes infuriated with the situation of women, thinking to herself, "you intend to do great things," the door of an available bathroom stall "swings open" and the speaker finds herself "next in line."
The poem ends with a double entendre, the speaker finding herself at a turning point. At this crux, she can decide to challenge the way women are viewed in society or conform to it. Either way, the reader is left not knowing her choice.
Ultimately, this poem is about overcoming image and promoting change, whether it is on a personal or professional level. The speaker overcomes the image of the woman because she realizes age and status do not separate them; they are both human, though they also are both guilty of judging each other on appearances.
But image is a tricky thing.
As long as I am told that prettier, less qualified girls will get the job before I do, and as long as studies are released on the evening news stating that women who wear skirts to interviews are more likely to be hired than women wearing slacks, I will conform to what society has constructed for me.
In the book Autobiography of a Face , author Lucy Grealy describes her life as a cancer survivor who has one-third of her jaw removed and loses her hair from chemotherapy. But out of all the potential demons that could haunt Grealy during her many surgeries, the one that plagued her most was her face. She writes, "I could only compensate for, but never overcome, the obstacle of my face."
"Opening Night" is about choices. In it I allude to the Egyptian rites of passage into the afterlife because a particular image in an art history book struck me. An illustration from the Egyptian Book of the Dead , found on a papyrus scroll circa 1285 B.C., depicts a dead man's heart being weighed against an ostrich feather on a set of scales.
If the man's heart is heavier than the feather, which represents maat or truth, he endure a second death. If they are equal in weight, the man is regarded as free from sin and can enjoy the afterlife.
As Americans, we all have the choice and freedom to promote change, but the smallest and sometimes most important changes we can make are the ones within ourselves.
The omnipresent media will continue to determine what constitutes "beauty." But until everyday people accept the faces, gender and weight of the masses, America's obsession with image will only worsen; mothers and fathers will continue to tell daughters and sons they are ashamed of the way they look, even though they share the same genetic makeup.
We must change our attitudes. We must cast less superficial judgments on others. If we do, we may get lucky when it comes time for Anubis to weigh our hearts.