On Vanity


I rode the B train from Bryant Park to Grand Street across from a teenage girl today. She was very young, maybe 14 or 15, no jeune fille aching under the weight of her virginity in a French memoir, but lovely and awkward all the same in her contemporary American-ness. 

Her forehead was decorated with acne and she picked at her bangs, maybe trying to cover it, for most of the ride. She looked at a mirror while she did this. No big emotional scene going on, no grimaces or practice smiles. This girl was a New Yorker, used to being visible most of the time, used to a life lived in public.  



I did what I do most mornings with people within my field of vision on the subway: I judged her. I thought, so vain, teenagers, especially teenaged girls, blah blah blah, criticizing completely reflexively because I am a former teenage girl myself.

Then I thought: you know, you'd be self-obsessed too if your entire paradigm shifted within a few short months/years; if you'd had a sense of foreboding since age 11, and now everything you'd hoped/feared regarding your body was suddenly coming to pass; if you were now subject to entire planets of judgement/visibility previously unknown; if your face was different every morning when you looked at it, zits tracing their life-cycles, baby fat thinning and rearranging, weird hair experiments wreaking havoc.

The visibility part was really painful to remember, in particular. That sick mix of hope/fear, constantly pulling in either direction, the potential for sexiness, the fear of its realization, the fear that it wouldn't be realized. The   weird inability to be anonymous, suddenly. We slip under the radar as plain, mismatched, sneakered 10-year-olds, observing, THINKING, our intellects luxuriously occupied with imagination and strange enthusiasms; we are overlooked as Potential People, To Be Determineds. Forgiven or at least ignored. At 14 that's all over, or at least considerably thinned, depending on who's watching.