A Fair and Honest Appraisal of Your Looks
At the grand reopening party for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I met the Bumbys. Well, not so much ‘met’ as was judged by — me and hundreds of other attendees, not just willingly but fervently asked to be appraised by them.
The Bumbys are an anonymous couple who sit on a small stage, wearing expensive wigs, sunglasses, headphones and scarves over their faces — looking like avant garde muggers. One at a time, participants step up to either Jill or Gill Bumby and stand awkwardly for what feels like ages but is actually just about two minutes. You can do whatever you want in front of them. Some people dance, some smile, some put on a little performance. I stuffed my hands into the pockets of my skirt and tried to telepathically convince Jill Bumby to please say nice things about me.
The Bumbys thoughtfully type several sentences on analog typewriters and then assign you a rating. It turns out they make it a point to be very generous, usually scoring in the nines — I suppose because otherwise they wouldn’t get invited to expensive events. Then you get off the stage to read it with your friends and ponder if everybody else looks at you the same way.
It’s the apex of self-absorption.
At first it was shocking to me that nobody questioned it — that everybody who entered the room couldn’t wait to get in line. I filed in beside them, curious to see how they would go about preparing for their turns. I quickly understood that the ‘performance art’ aspect of the Bumbys began as soon as people read their sign, “A fair and honest appraisal of your appearance.”
It began with fake arm twisting and denial about how exciting it would be to have someone’s undivided attention for two minutes.
“Ohmygod no way, we are not doing this. Should we? We shouldn’t. I mean, I’m kind of curious though. Just because it will be interesting. We have all night anyway, it’s not like we have to be anywhere.”
The wait was about forty-five minutes, so I took a trip to the restroom where some fellow art-lovers were doing blow in the handicap stall, and then got back in line with the rest of my group. Closer to the stage, the mood intensified.
“What do you think you’ll do? Dance? I think I’ll dance. I hate this song though, I wish they were playing something else. Actually I might just stand there and smile. I wonder if they’re watching us right now.”
Then the self-consciousness kicked in. Those on deck got really quiet. There was lots of playing with hair and nervous smiles towards the Bumbys, whose dark shades revealed nothing about them. People fixed make-up and adjusted bow ties.
An usher stood by, trying to prevent people from cutting — which happened at least twice in the ten minutes I stood there.
“Watching everyone before they hit the stage must be so fascinating,” I said casually, wondering if she thought this all smacked of desperation.
She laughed. “It really is. I’ve worked with the Bumbys for years. Sometimes this line is two hours long.”
What fascinated me most about this charade was that it was taking place at a party in San Francisco, where nerdy local celebrities like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Zynga co-founder Mark Pincus were present. In New York or Los Angeles, where people are famously brazen about their looks as a vehicle of self-expression, the context would feel different to me. They’d be interested to see if the Bumbys would appreciate their vintage Versace clutch or hand crocheted veil. In San Francisco, where brains rule, fashion means looking like androgynous versions of one another, and more materialistic cities are often snubbed, it alarmed me that the SF crowd was so into it. I wondered what could possibly drive them — the tech elite at the top of the world — to care about the opinions of these two people so publicly.
I did a little research to better understand who my fellow patrons at this event might be — as HuffPost put it — the ‘bluebloods and newbloods.’
A healthy portion of patrons paid between $1,000 and $10,000 for the SFMOMA sit-down dinner and the after party, plus whatever they contributed during the live auctioning of things like a Douglas Aitken sculpture ($280,000) and an ‘Armani fashion foray to Paris’ (priceless). The rest of us paid $150 just to party. That’s a pretty big spread, so maybe not everybody in line was as established as I thought. But then I looked at the economics of SF and came to one conclusion — we’re fancy as fuck.
- Median home price reached over $1 million in 2014 — over three times the national average, meaning a San Franciscan could own six ranch style homes and a duplex in a place like Brainerd, MN.
- A $155,000 annual income will get you two bedrooms — the most common residence in the city.
- A puzzling 2,784 homes claim to have ‘no bedroom,’ which just seems like a matter of perspective.
- Over 65% adults have enjoyed some college experience — ranging from under a year to possessing a doctorate degree, 13.5% higher than the rest of the country.
In other random notes, from 1910 to 2010 there was a 107% increase in ‘people in college dorms/student housing,’ and a 91% decrease in ‘people living in mental (psychiatric) hospitals and psychiatric units in other hospitals.’ Which makes it seem like they forced most psych patients to get an education. Additionally, San Francisco ranked #2 for largest decrease in number of deaths per 1000 residents from 1990–1999 (pop 50,000+) — which is a real niche if you ask me. And the current homicide rate is less than 0.01% — which is just a relief.
City-Data.com also found it important to generate a list of the ‘most common names in San Francisco County, among deceased individuals.’ Not living individuals, mind you. Care to guess number one? If you picked ‘Wong,’ you wouldn’t be wong…
Considering these high-achieving averages and the hour long queue of hand-wringers, it occurred to me that the desire of San Franciscans to be judged must be innately more human than I thought.
This really hit home the day after the event when a guy I work with — former Bain analyst, ivy leaguer, silver spoon-fed and without a self-doubting bone in his body — told me he despised San Francisco for all its ‘tech douches.’ The man owns three fog machines and hosts private hipster events where the main attraction is his own DJ set. When he moved to San Francisco he threw himself two going away parties. He regularly uses words like ‘insofar’ and ‘concurrently’ while leading conversations about which locally-sourced coffee we shouldn’t have in the office.
We humans don’t understand how effective we are at being the versions of ourselves we want to be — or avoiding the versions we don’t — so it’s more than just a curiosity to hear it from the Bumbys. We crave it to gauge how well we’re doing.
It’s not a novel idea that humans suck at self-awareness. It’s just that now, unlike ever before, we have such endorsed and exposed outlets through which we grapple with our identities. The Bumbys are a standout example because they literally put you on a stage — but if you think about it, they pale in comparison to more mainstream offenders, like social media. We have a primary option — to “Like.” Put your selfies, thoughts and opinions out there for reactions but the safety next is pretty wide. Sure the newer emojis allow for some good old-fashioned passive aggression but for the most part, like the Bumbys, we’re all basically guaranteed at least a nine unless we really misjudge our audience — a group of like-minded personal connections, if we’ve done our friending right.
I told the tech douche I work with that he has indeed become what he fears, because I don’t mind that kind of conflict in the workplace. I think he took it pretty well — leading me to believe that for the sake of our future selves, it might be healthy to make a few enemies now and then.
1. The Bumbys