'The thing with Dickie'

So much of what we do on social media we do to gain the attention and admiration of others. Every Facebook post is designed to be ‘liked’. Every Instagram is composed to look cool. Every tweet is crafted to sound clever. We do this to make ourselves look good to others, and when we gain their approval through their response, we actually feel good - for a time. Inevitably, however, the newsfeed favours a new story, and the whimsical gaze of followers turns away.

This attention seeking reminds me of a scene in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), in which the character of Marge explains the force of Dickie Greenleaf’s regard to a bereft and enamoured Tom:

Marge Sherwood:
The thing with Dickie... it's like the sun shines on you, and it's glorious. And then he forgets you and it's very, very cold.

Tom Ripley:
So I'm learning.

Marge Sherwood:
When you have his attention, you feel like you're the only person in the world, that's why everybody loves him so much.

Matt Damon (as Tom Ripley) and Jude Law (as Dickie Greenleaf) in  The Talented Mr. Ripley  (1999).

Matt Damon (as Tom Ripley) and Jude Law (as Dickie Greenleaf) in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999).

As the story goes, Tom Ripley is a con-artist who, in his obsession with golden playboy Dickie, seeks first to be Dickie’s favourite and then to actually be him. Highsmith’s novel is a psychological thriller, but one that highlights our human desire to be admired through whatever means necessary, often regardless of whether the identity we assume is substantially our own or not.

In any given social media interaction, we are Tom Ripley, craving audience approval. When we have it, we are sustained by its sunshine; when we don’t, we are lost in the shadows. We post, click and comment to get back in that glorious sun. Eventually, these interactions take on an identity of their own, because they aren’t actually us - our literal, physical or even psychological selves - but rather projections of who we want to be in the eyes of others.

Yes, images and words might be accurate representations of who people really are - but they might not be. Publicity is not authenticity, and attention is forever fleeting. That’s the thing with Dickie.

'Fresh face to the world'

As a teen of the 90s, the slogan for the CoverGirl makeup brand remains iconic: ‘Easy, breezy, beautiful… CoverGirl’. One of their TV adverts featured a jingle with a rhyming line before the tagline: ‘Fresh face to the world’. I since love the idea of putting a 'fresh face' forward to others. Clean, clear, strong - a face you take care of and put forward confidently.

While I have always aspired to do this, I've not always done it. It takes time, effort and commitment. As with many healthy practices, you need to form the habit.

90s CoverGirl model, Niki Taylor.

90s CoverGirl model, Niki Taylor.

In youth, it's easy to admire the fantasy of effortless beauty. It's also easy to take youthfulness for granted, and to imagine that we will always seem fresh and strong, whether we try to convey that image or not.

Now in my more mature years, I have a skincare routine that frames my day. Each morning and night, I spend time - with cleanser, lotion, serum and even massage techniques - taking good care of my skin. It may seem vain of me to admit to this practice, and to advocate it - but I do. It's my face, and it's the face I put forward to others, after all.

Self care is strength, at any age. Take care of the skin you’re in. Fresh face to the world.

On Self-styling

What is self-styling? This term is a catch-all for what most interests me: how we use language - verbal and body, visual and textual - to construct ourselves for others.

In the world of fashion, the stylist is the consultant who selects the clothing and accessories worn by a model, actor or other public figure for a project or appearance. In this creative role, the stylist helps to style a person's image for public consumption. This makes the stylist something of a personal artist, or stylist of the self.

Today, we are each our own personal artist and self-stylist.

Perhaps more now than any other time in history, people use pictures, words and gestures to project images of themselves to the world. Of course this is not a new phenomenon; museums and libraries are full of portraits, manuscripts and other archives that document our human history of self-portrayal and projection. As a famous example, historian Derek Wilson questioned whether Hans Holbein's hulking portrait of Henry VIII (1537) is 'the best piece of propaganda ever':

Hans Holbein the Younger, Henry VIII (1537)

Hans Holbein the Younger, Henry VIII (1537)

In explaining the glorifying, intimidating purpose of the Holbein portrait, Wilson recalls that 'the need for leaders to project a favourable image is as old as politics itself.' This is certainly true, and in these overbearing and insane political times, it is vital that we register - consciously - how our leaders are crafting and projecting themselves to us. 

But this crafting is not only true of our leaders. In our digital age - thanks to social media and the current acceleration of identity politics - our engagement with self-styling is near constant. When we engage with the media, we are quite often observing the styling of others or styling ourselves for others to observe. The art of self-styling is a postmodern, digital obsession.

Vladimir Nabokov once declared that 'for me, "style" is matter', and Martin Amis since claims that style is 'intrinsic to perception' and is, ultimately, 'morality'. The projection of style in writing might be seen as a matter of ethics - mattering more than substance, but then also bearing that same responsibility. This is only more true when style projects personal identity. The point is therefore to engage consciously with self-styling when it occurs - to recognise how the art influences us, and how we might be using it to influence others.