Not What You Think

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   September 13, 2022

“Fool me once, – shame on you
Fool me twice,
Shame on me.”

It may surprise you to realize in how many ways our lives, literature, and entire culture are based on misleading each other and our fellow creatures.

To start with, there’s the matter of clothing, and all kinds of other things we put on our bodies, or do to them, to make us appear younger, taller, and more appealing to others, particularly to the opposite sex. In recent times, it has been women more than men who have practiced these wiles. Think of high-heeled shoes, underwear designed to produce false shapeliness, or of unnaturally curled (or straightened) hair – to say nothing of wigs, artificial eyelashes, and depilatory methods and substances for removing hair.

Then, of course, there is Plastic Surgery, to change the shape of your nose, or even revamp your entire face, accompanied by cosmetic dentistry. – But, speaking of “cosmetics,” I need hardly dwell on the huge international industry based on supplying all kinds of “makeup,” from lipstick and nail polish to “eye-shadow” and rouge. Beyond question, we want to look better than we are.

Did I say “look”? – let’s not forget smell, and the age-old perfume trade, to give us presumably pleasant odors that nature forgot to supply.

Then there is the ghastly trade in tattoos, relatively new to our culture (except among sailors) – but the practice of coloring and scarifying flesh as a part of “beautification” is world-wide, particularly among still-primitive peoples.

This brings us to the deliberate distortion of limbs and other extremities, such as the knocking out of teeth, and the hideous not-so-long-ago Chinese custom of binding the feet of girl babies to make them fit into ridiculously small shoes, and thus unable to walk naturally for the rest of their lives.

If this is all done in the name of sex-appeal, let me pass briefly over the various pseudo-surgical means of preserving virginity in women and the circumcision of men, which in certain religions, including Judaism, is still considered a sacrament.

In view of all this tinkering with Nature, it is a relief to transfer our attention to the non-human world of Nature itself, in which reproduction, survival, and deception are inextricably intertwined. Why are so many flowers so beautiful – (even to us, who really have no part in the proceedings, unless we are in specialized trades like that of beekeeping)? The truth is, of course, that, in most cases, it is a matter of attracting the insects who transfer the generative pollen to keep the whole system going – with the rare exceptions of plants which actually consume insects – like the notorious Venus Flytrap. Even certain plants which among humans have a reputation for obnoxious odors exude those repulsive emissions only because certain insects are attracted by them.

But repulsion of enemies is also part of the artistry of the natural world, as in the wing patterns of certain butterflies which look like big scary eyes. And larger creatures have growls, snorts, and a variety of other fear-producing sounds to make an enemy back off, without realizing how weak its prey may actually be.

Deception, whether to attract or repel, is obviously the name of the game. But this brings us back to people (because animals don’t play games, do they?). And we have numerous games based on deception, such as poker, in which the whole idea (as I, a non-player, understand it) is to make the other players think your cards are more “valuable” than they may actually be. Part of the strategy involves not revealing your “hand” by any facial expression. Hence our tribute to the “Poker Face.”

The whole profession of acting is of course based on attempting to convince an audience that the fakery they’re witnessing is really true. This applies to writing too, which is why we have that rather strange librarians’ divide between “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction.”

And, since ancient times, warfare has been largely a matter of misleading the enemy. Even today, armed forces make extensive use of what’s known as “camouflage,” to deceive your opponents as to just who and how many and how strong you are, and where you’re located.

But, to conclude this solemn catalog, I can’t resist going back to cosmetics, my favorite bugaboo, and to some lines from an old campfire song, which you may recall:

“Oh you can’t get to Heaven in powder and paint,
‘Cause the Lord don’t like you as you ain’t”  


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