I was always dubious when people told me I had beautiful skin, as they sometimes did in my twenties and thirties. As a teen, I faced off with the enemy in front of a medicine cabinet with mirrors like sliding glass doors. Behind the sliders, I kept an arsenal of witchy potions: pHisoHex, Stridex pads, Benzoyl Peroxide, Witch Hazel. I could never square my angsty, blemish-worrying self with the apocryphal advertising girl others seemed to see. If I had a dime for every time, someone said I looked like the Ivory Snow girl back then, I could have bought a chocolate bar.
The splattered surface of my mirror never said anything about being the fairest. It said that people with troubled skin also have troubles at home and with boys. It foretold a life of inner torment, maladaptation, social and familial dis-ease. It said, Sister, at 16, you’re more hag than maiden.
But what of the person who is deluded by her mirrored self? What if there are irreconcilable differences between the reflected image and the landed perception? This person may be said to suffer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Factors that play into the disparity between the seen and the actual are said to be introversion; perfectionism; negative body image; childhood abuse, neglect or emotional conflict; and a heightened aesthetic sensibility. The top three trouble zones for the body dysmorphic are hair, nose, and skin. Though really, any part of the body will do. Or should I say, won’t do? I imagine thighs are a big one.
Although I deplored going to the doctor under any circumstances, I saw what dermatology had done for my sister’s friend Kitty. She swabbed her face at regular intervals through the day with a cotton ball saturated with some professionally prescribed elixir. Her skin was bright and fresh-scrubbed as, well, the Ivory Snow girl.
Which gets me thinking, was it the Ivory Soap girl or the Ivory Snow girl, or were they one and the same? Googling up some old images, I find her–a wholesome blonde, girl-next-door type, the very image of purity, airbrushed to powdery perfection, her gaze fixed upon a dimpled cherub. Ivory Snow soap flakes and she was actual, not apocryphal. She even had a name, Marilyn Chambers.
But wait, there’s more, some kind of trouble in paradise—second career as a porn star, perhaps best known for her breakout role in 1972’s Behind the Green Door. When Proctor and Gamble discovered their girl was a porn star, they had the product pulled from the shelves.
And isn’t there always more to it?
I told my mother I was tired of going it alone and asked to see a dermatologist. I believe I actually used the phrase, “going it alone.” Mom seemed surprised. “But your skin’s so pretty!” she enthused. I knew her to be an unreliable witness. Any fool could see I’d inherited her skin, a greasy minefield. I couldn’t shake an early memory of sitting at the kitchen table while she stirred a pot at the stove and my father sidled up behind her to take on a volcanic cyst on her shoulder. It seemed fitting that she would take me to the dermatologist she’d seen as an adolescent, one Dr. Flower, still miraculously in business.
I sat across a large desk from a white-haired man in an office more scholarly than medical, with many books, papers, and professional journals. Glancing at me briefly, he wrote out a prescription for oral antibiotics on the spot. I thought we were through. Why had my mother been so reluctant to bring me here anyway?
Soon I had my answer. He ushered me back to an examining room where I lay on the table. For the remainder of the hour (or so it seemed) he pressed with extreme force all over my forehead using a stainless steel extractor. When he started in on my jawline, I began to weep.
The day after the battle, my skin felt tight and smooth as an apple, but soon the zits were back. I soldiered on alone with my stockpile of witchy products, reinforced by oral antibiotics, cover sticks, and Cover Girl cosmetics.
The language and metaphors of warfare are exactly right, my friends. Dermatology then was hand-to-hand combat; now it is like blasting the problem from the air.
Post-menopause, a whole new legion of troubles: wrinkles, dryness, broken capillaries, sunspots, enlarged pores, freckles, and moles. Now there are regular appointments with a far kinder dermatologist. She freezes, applies drops of acid, recommends laser intervention, bestows samples or sells new products, and says, sometimes, “There’s not much we can do about that.”
The plane mirror, like the sliding door mirror of my adolescent vanity, reflects the flat truth of the subject, while a convex mirror, like the silvered witch ball that hangs in the north window of our kitchen, creating a sort of accidental vanity, has a radically distorting quality.
My aunt and uncle were antique dealers who made frequent buying trips to England. The card accompanying their wedding gift explained: witch balls were traditionally hung in cottage windows to ward off evil spirits. Any witch trying to enter the house through a window would catch sight of her hideous reflection and be frightened away.
Our witch ball is about the size of a human head. When I stand below it, gazing up into its slightly pocked surface, the whole room can be seen in special effect, as through the eyes of a body dysmorphic. As I lean in close, my chin narrows to a sharp downward pointing triangle, and my face becomes mostly nose, embraced by a slim margin of cheek on each side.
After I had opened their gift, I held it carefully by the ring that runs through a blackened brass mount at the top. In the filigree, I discerned a number: 1721.
The earliest witch balls were either mercury or silver-plated. The glass may be wavy, dimpled, or uneven. Over time, the plating can tarnish and grow spotty. These imperfections help antiquarians guess their age in the same way that we might approximate a woman’s age by way of her liver and sunspots.
If I were a witch ball, I feel sure that I would command a goodly sum. The best are those that have hand-blown unevenness, the less than perfect surface testifying to their age and authenticity. Pick one up and you will find it heavy as if something weighty lurks in its dark hollows. In some spheres, witch balls were thought to do their work by absorption, the theory being that the witch would grow so captivated by the surface reflection that she would enter into it, therein to be trapped forever, a victim of her own vanity.
If you gaze at yourself in the mirror for a very long time, your perception will begin to break down. You may experience body dysmorphic illusions, or begin to think your witch ball is really a crystal ball, and use it to scry the future. In your self-induced trance, you may even cross a metaphysical barrier and read the final chapters of your journey from maiden to crone.
I cannot have more elastic skin, but I can go after the vanity, try to shed the longing to look as I once did. In theory, at least, this should be easy, especially if the reflection was never that clear to begin with.
Lindsay Fleming was raised by an astrologer/palmist mom on a farm in rural Vermont. She now lives in Guilford where she has been carpooling, meal-planning and laundressing for over twenty years. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops, City Paper, Baltimore Fishbowl, and the anthology Room to Grow. Find her car in the parking lot of Baltimore Yoga Village.