The Man in the Mirror Loathed His Reflection

Michael Jackson in 1977, before his transformation.
Michael Jackson in 1977, before his transformation. (AP)
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By Courtland Milloy
Monday, June 29, 2009

What killed Michael Jackson?

This autopsy does not require a scalpel. A mirror will do.

"He had the nose of a black male, and he didn't want one," Scott L. Spear, chairman of the plastic surgery division at Georgetown University, told me. "He was a black man who wanted to look like a white Diana Ross."

That's not a cut, just a clue. Spear's diagnosis: acute body dysmorphic disorder, from the Greek dys, meaning bad or ugly, and morphos, meaning shape or form.

For Jackson, who died Thursday at age 50, it meant a world of pain.

Ironically, Jackson had emerged on the music scene just as the "black is beautiful" movement was becoming all the rage. In 1968, the Jackson brothers made a demo tape in which Michael, then 10, sported an Afro and danced like James Brown. He was a handsome little man, black and proud. He had soul, and he was super bad.

And in little more than 10 years, he would start looking like a white woman.

Margo Jefferson, author of "On Michael Jackson," called him a "post-modern shape-shifter." But the history of race and skin color in America suggests something more pathological.

Evidence abounds that self-loathing can have dire consequences. Young black men, for instance, have killed other black men just because they didn't like the looks on their faces -- faces that more often than not resembled their own.

Jackson obviously did not like the black man he saw in the mirror.

Studies have shown that many African Americans obsess about facial features or skin color that conflict with images of beauty promoted in the mass media, images that are usually based on some notion of a white ideal.

Black people spend as much as five times more on personal care products as do whites, according to some surveys -- with skin lighteners high on the list.

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