3 min

Picture this

A few months ago  a friend who is having serious good luck on the internet met a guy who said, “You’re not what I was expecting,” to which my friend said, “You’re not what I expected either.”

I was sympathetic at first, “You’re not what I expected,” being right up there with “I’m just resting, thanks,” as among the most upsetting comments a gay man can expect to hear in his lifetime.

But my sympathy withered when I heard that they didn’t exactly know what they were expecting. Neither one of them had bothered to exchange face pics. So what exactly were they expecting, a blob with a hole?

A few weeks later I heard a similar story from an acquaintance who put up with a certain amount of dissembling on the ‘net, but drew the line at outright lying.

“I’m totally versatile,” he said, “but I’m more comfortable topping in those sorts of situations, and I met this guy…” and here he paused, grappling for words to describe the guy’s ugliness. The guy was years older and many pounds heavier than his body shots suggested. But who was deceiving whom here? Once again, it turned out they hadn’t exchanged face pics.

What’s going on here? At first glance it looks like a break for freedom, a revolt against image culture. Fed up with the whole looks thing, these guys have gone for sex without too much regard for the package.

But of course that’s not what either of these guys is doing. They both had images in mind. Just because the result wasn’t clear, visual or even factual doesn’t mean it wasn’t an image. Working (probably) with a few suggestive stats, a couple of disjointed pictures and a lot of imagination, they’d created their own fantasy image.

We live in a society so saturated by commercial imagery and its many commandments and expectations that it’s nice to think some people occasionally get the urge to live off the grid, outside the reach of clear image. But in reality no one ever does. Just because you refuse to play the game doesn’t mean you can step free of the rules.

In that respect it’s kind of like fashion. You can sneer at its superficiality but you’ll still be judged by its dictates. I see people around who look like they’re dressed for a 1980s business convention or a ’70s porn movie and, much as I’d like to admire their originality, they mostly just look out of touch with the present.

In a modern urban society where few of us actually know the thousands of people who are making decisions that affect our lives image is everything.

Sometimes it’s just a parlour game. I once told a friend I’d been around so long that I could tell what a guy’s dick would look like from across a crowded room, before the clothes came off.

That was a lie, of course. A booze-fuelled lie. But it shows the lengths to which we’ll go to maintain the integrity  of imagery. We want to believe that the surface somehow matches the centre, the looks the life. It’s almost never the case, as anyone who’s every met a nasty dude in a nice package can tell you, but it’s a convenient fiction.

Looking at someone is quicker than talking to them. It also allows more control. From a distance, the other person is part of your fiction, your fantasy.

It’s always a good idea to get to know somebody before you judge them but in our society that’s often not possible. In a rural or small-town setting, image may  be beside the point. You know  the people you deal with. In an anonymous urban setting, though, it’s everything.

We all feel like we know Obama, Clinton, Harper and their ilk. In fact, the relationship is so intense it feels almost intimate. We know them so well, we feel, that we can judge their character and their values. But in reality we don’t know them at all. Most of us have never even been in the same stadium as these people, let alone the same room. All we’re operating on is an image.

But that’s the nature of contemporary relationships; conducted at  a distance. What that means is that seeming becomes as important as being. It matters less who you are than what you look like. (“I’ve been spending hours at the gym,” said a friend the other day, “just so I can get a good chest shot [for online dating]”).

On- or offline, everyone constructs an image of themselves and others for public interaction. It may or may not be accurate  but it’s foolish to say, “Oh, don’t  be so superficial, don’t judge by appearances,” because sometimes that’s all you’ve got. Image is  the currency of a media world.