Michael Jackson and The Five Stages of Grief: Bargaining
In the traditional sense, bargaining means making a “deal” with a higher power – for example, I’ll be a better person, I’ll trade XYZ, just let me live or bring my loved one back. In this case I’m sure we all agree that we’d ante up a few bucks for the Resurrect Michael Jackson Fund. As far as still-living pop singer currency I’d be willing to put up, say, FIFTYLEVEN Chris Browns and a bucket of R. Kellys for just one Michael Jackson. Since the weight of Michael’s contributions is heavier than most of what we could possibly barter up, I’m taking today to go a little off track to a form of bargaining that Michael engaged in, one that, unless we make peace with it, could mar our memories of him forever. I’m talking about the huge elephant in the corner of our mourning room: the changes in Michael Jackson’s appearance.
In November of 2007 Michael Jackson appeared on the cover of Ebony and I was so shocked by his appearance that it encouraged me to write him an open letter.
How are you and the kids? I hope fine. I’m writing to you because of your latest Ebony cover. You look fabulous! What I mean to say is, you look like a white woman. Please don’t be insulted, I understand now that you want to look this way and it’s OK. You’re color struck and hate your nappy hair just like most black Americans, the difference is that most of us don’t have millions of dollars to look anyway we want. Just because I’m dark and nappy doesn’t mean that you needed to stay that way too, and I know having vitiligo must be such a pain! Since I saw the Ebony cover I’ve been thinking about you and how great you are and wondering why you don’t seem to agree. Don’t you understand that we would all love you if you wore your hair natural? Don’t you understand that we would all love you if we could see your vitiligo splotches? I may even love you MORE if you didn’t feel the need to change the structure of your face so much (no one really needs a cleft in their chin). And NOTHING is going to stop people from talking trash about you no matter what you do! But it’s all water under the bridge now – what’s done is done and I think we should move forward. All of that aside, I have a small proposition for you. I would like for us to go on a little vacation together, I was thinking Barbados or something, on you, of course. I think that we should both get into swimsuits with no makeup and frolic in the ocean and not worry about what happens to our hair and skin. Would you be open to that? I think that if you let me see your perm go back and some of your vitiligo splotches, and I let you see my flabby thighs and my peasy kitchen we could really connect. I would love to see you all nappy and splotchy in the sun and just look you in the eye and say “Michael I love you no matter what,” just because it’s true and is something I think you need to hear. I’m no expert, but I have been accused in the past of loving myself too much and I think that if I could rub off on you a little you’ll live a happier life in the long run. I know I speak for so many people when I say that the time has come for Michael Jackson to love himself, no matter what he looks like. We all want you to stop what you’re doing to your face, skin, and hair, and come home to us even if in your own mind you look terrible. Remember, Michael, it all comes down to your power, that one moment where you changed black history, music, dance, in fact the whole world, forever. Watch this video and remind yourself, Michael. And let me know about Barbados.
At the time, as much as I felt for Michael, I hadn’t thought very hard about what it must be like to watch yourself go through physical changes and be willing to do anything to stop them. This is where the bargaining component comes in. We’ve all been there – if I just scrub a little harder, starve myself one more day, push my cuticles back more often, get that mole removed, wear a little more makeup, throw in a few more Wet n’ Wavy tracks – ANYTHING – then I’ll love myself a little more, people will love me a little more, I’ll even be a better person. We’re all willing to go different distances to get to that point where we feel perfect and loved, but for Michael the stakes seemed so much higher and of course, the resources greater. The first time I was due to appear on camera I was practically willing to put paint thinner on my face to get rid of a tiny pimple, so I can hardly imagine to what lengths I would go if the affection of millions of adoring fans was at stake. He’s always been a handsome fella’, but what was Michael willing to do and why?
Let’s put our imagination hats on for a moment, shall we? One day you look in the mirror and notice a light spot at the corner of your right eye. You think nothing of it at first and figure it’ll go away, but eventually it gets larger and larger. Then the same thing happens to your left eye, the edges of your fingers, the corners of your mouth. The pigment is slowly spreading off of your brown skin. You have vitiligo. I’m guilty of staring at vitiligo sufferers on the street and just can’t imagine dealing with what many view as disfigurement, especially while living in the public eye. The only camouflage options are heavy makeup or a procedure called total depigmentation where the skin is cleared of all pigment with bleaching cream or laser therapy. It is unknown which of these procedures Michael Jackson may have used, but the photographic evidence of his vitiligo is abundant. Like most people, I assumed that he wanted to look white, but I now realize that skin color is the smallest piece of blackness there is – I’d rather hear a black man sing a love song about a Liberian Girl than watch today’s black artists run paper bag tests on the “good haired” half-naked women in their videos…so who is really “blacker”? Not only that, but what were the chances that anyone, especially non-black people, would ever forget that Michael Jackson was actually an African-American? I have to accept that vitiligo played a significant role in Micheal Jackson’s life both physically and mentally, and his skin was probably the last thing he would ever have changed if he could.
Now that we’ve made peace with Michael’s lightening over time, the only skin disease that makes half of your nose fall off is leprosy, and Mike didn’t have that. What he may have had, however, is Body Dysmorphic Disorder “a psychiatric disorder in which the affected person is excessively concerned about and preoccupied by an imagined or minor defect in his or her physical features.” No one can say for sure if Michael had it, but he definitely meets the criteria. He didn’t seem to just dislike his appearance, he was willing to go through changes that rendered him almost unrecognizable, even to himself, and what’s damaging about this is the loneliness of not recognizing one’s own face in the mirror. Combined with the gradual loss of pigmentation, how could his metamorphosis, even to the extent that he caused it, NOT make him a little weird?
Perhaps the most troubling fact about Michael is that he used cosmetic surgery to make himself look less African. Let’s face it – he was one of the richest and most famous black people to ever live and he repeatedly chose new noses with nothing black about them. To make peace with this fact, I call upon black America’s historical discomfort with our own big noses and nappy hair. Things are slightly different today because we see black faces and natural hair all the time on television and among our peers, but when Michael Jackson was growing up a big black nose was the kiss of death and even “Black and Proud,” hadn’t been invented yet. Was Michael Jackson just a regular black person with the rare means to massage that damaged part of the black psyche through surgery? When it came to his hair, was he just a fifty year old man who got a curl in the eighties and never let go of the conk? When I look at it this way, the unexplainable becomes less tragic, more reasonable, and just kind of sad – not just for Michael Jackson but for black folks as a whole. Speculation aside, one thing is for sure – Michael Jackson would want the world to remember him as whichever version of himself we want. I’m personally going to pick Michael circa 1981 and accept what Michael may never have been able to – it’s the talent and magic that makes a man, not what’s on the outside.
Throwback Video: Michael Jackson on The Flip Wilson Show
For some interesting black history, read about the treatment of vitiligo sufferers in America as sideshow freaks and everything…
As always, sharing your thoughts in the comment section is encouraged.
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