For nearly a year, our spheres have gotten smaller, our friend circles tighter. We’ve packed away the clothes and the trappings of the lives we once led, and take Zoom calls with bare faces. The changes may have seemed inconsequential in the short term, but as the pandemic stretches on, we are often left only with ourselves, and been forced to confront the very idea of self — who we were, who we are now.
For this month’s issue of the Highlight, we took this shifting understanding as our cue to explore how we present ourselves to the world, sometimes going unseen, sometimes tweaking the details of our stories to get ahead, sometimes learning to accept ourselves, even if others cannot.
Photographer Joana Toro has spent months peering behind the masks of the Mickeys, Minnies, and Batmans of Times Square to learn the stories of those whose faces we rarely see. Though Times Square makes up just a speck of New York City’s geography, before Covid-19 stunted tourism, those flashiest few blocks were an economic powerhouse, one that supported a whole ecosystem of street vendors, ticket sellers, and costumed characters from Mickey Mouse and Elmo to the Naked Cowboy. “They are at once a highly visible and invisible presence,” writes Vox’s Emily Stewart. Today, with tourism at a troubling low, they face untold economic hardships as marginal entertainment workers — so important for the Times Square “experience” but rarely seen behind their masks.
Mayukh Sen tells the wild tale of J. Ranji Smile, regarded as one of America’s first Indian chefs (and perhaps its first celebrity chef), who courted the press until his star fell. Smile is largely forgotten by the food world, but the way he toyed with his public image made him an unlikely media star in 1900s America.
For some, their self-concept revolves around style. As lockdown and the subsequent year of working from home has transformed everything in fashion, killing the very notion of “business casual” and giving rise to the sweatpant twinset, is it okay to mourn the selves we used to be? Hilary George-Parkin talks to people whose work and lives during Covid-19 have meant leaving behind clothes that gave them a sense of identity.
And finally, Aubrey Gordon — also known under the pseudonym Your Fat Friend — writes about beauty ideals and the search for love. “I do not lie awake at night, longing for a thinner body or some life that lies 100 pounds out of reach,” writes Gordon. “For me, my body isn’t good or bad; it just is. But I had never seen a fat woman in love.”
These stories run the gamut, but each is a reminder of the perennially evolving way we see ourselves in the world.
Performing to an empty Times Square
Life was never easy for New York’s costumed performers. What happens when the tourists disappear?
By Emily Stewart
Concept, photographs, and additional reporting by Joana Toro
The wild and irresistibly saucy tale of the curry con man (coming Thursday)
J. Ranji Smile served Indian food and tall tales to a hungry American public. Was he the first “celebrity chef” or a crook? The truth is complicated.
By Mayukh Sen
To all the clothes I’ve loved before (coming Thursday)
Reconciling the sweatpants-wearing me with the fashion-loving woman I was just a year ago is an existential crisis like no other.
by Hilary George-Parkin
Such a pretty face (coming Friday)
Culture tells us bodies like mine are impossible to love. Don’t believe it.
by Aubrey Gordon