I saw myself on a video podcast the other day. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. Over the years, like most women, I have studied my face to excess: in thousands of mirrors and under every type of light. I am familiar with every freckle, every contour, every pore and every flaw but to see it on screen, in its full, animated glory, triggered immediate recoil, something tantamount to a full-body cringe. The person on screen looked odd. She blinked too much, had a faux earnest expression like some kind of Princess Diana wannabe and when she spoke, she sounded like a horsey sloaney twat. Her face looked unfamiliar. Her jowls looked droopy and her mouth downturned.
As I lurched for the phone, ready to dial for emergency cosmetic intervention, I began to think about how rare it is that we see ourselves as we truly are. Or as others might see us.
In the digital age, we are free to construct our identity, to select, crop and hyper-edit our image. We are the directors and producers of our lives, cherry picking the fun and glamorous times while cutting out the mundane. So much so that some of us eventually convince ourselves, identifying more with our avatar than we do with reality.
On dating sites, where people are searching for something more meaningful than a press release from their friends, the average member will sieve through thousands of contestants, hoping to cast a perfect partner in their own reality show. But to make it through to auditions, profiles must be a masterpiece of copyediting and photo-shop. A plain Jane accounts clerk suddenly morphs into porno secretary. John at British Rail masquerades as an engineering mogul. We are outraged when out dates are unrecognisable in person but do we stop to think if we are guilty too?
As a matchmaker I was faced with many a delusional client blinded by their online reflection: ‘Why do I have to state my age when I look so much younger?’
So what is the answer? Slap up a barefaced photo and minimal text onto a dating site and you’ll get about as much attention as an albino in Essex. If everyone else is doing it, then we’re not fighting fair.
Perhaps social networking sites could perform routine scans for those at risk of developing narcissistic tendencies and covertly activate the user’s webcam on a Monday morning, before enforcing a slow-motion playback. Double chin. Mochachino moustache. Ouch. Ego in check.
We all know the most desirable, and psychologically sound, solution is to rise above the futility of conceit, abhor the superficial, grow our armpit hair and surrender to a higher purpose. Most likely wearing a kaftan, we should proclaim our bodies a vessel for the soul, flinging them from social platforms to a wood hut in the forest, where we live off the land and plot post-digital anarchy.
Alternatively, there’s always the less drastic option of reminding ourselves that Narcissus wouldn’t have died, had he realised his reflection were only an image.
Read more from Haley Hill in her bestselling novel ‘It’s Got to Be Perfect: the memoirs of a modern-day matchmaker’