Manifesto to My Face
The other day, my friend Kay and I were discussing facelifts. I told her how disappointing it was that a movie star who’d always seemed intelligent and independent has had a facelift or four, and now, like all the others, resembles a blank, serene Martian.
“Women who’ve had lots of work done don’t look good, they just look bizarre and expensive,” I said. “You’d think she, of all people, would have refused.”
“Ah, but she was a beauty first and an actress second,” said my friend. “Aging is much harder on those who were beauties.”
Fantastic, I thought. One aspect of aging I don’t have to worry about.
Though Kay, still a beauty at sixty-five, is an actress who makes a living with her face, she told me she’d never have it lifted. One day, she said, when directors want to cast a woman with authentic looks, she’ll be the only one her age, at least on this side of the Atlantic, who has not been carved into an expressionless moon.
I told her I too will never have a facelift, because of seeing Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible at the age of twelve and hearing the hero, John Proctor, refuse to sign a false document, even to save his own life. “Why will you not sign?” his family pleads.
“BECAUSE IT IS MY NAME!” he roars.
His words burned into me then and surprised me by returning now. I won’t be smoothed and improved, I told Kay, because it is my face. But as the words left my mouth, I wasn’t sure what they meant.
After Kay’s departure, I went to the bathroom to frown at myself in the magnifying mirror, as it’s my habit to do daily. All very well to refuse beneficial surgery, when all I could see, illuminated for my viewing pleasure, were the crevices and splotches of age — the drooping pouchy cheeks and neck, the age spots and moles, deep carved lines and jowls, sprouting chin and upper lip hairs, and bizarrely, considering that I’m in my seventies, the blemishes. Pimples and wrinkles, fighting for space on my face.
Gazing in despair, pulling my cheeks and hairline back and up with both hands to imagine what it’d look like tight again — impassive, flat, younger — at that moment, for the first time, I paused. When, ever, have you looked in the mirror and liked what you saw? I asked myself.
Let me think.
There were times, yes, like the day of my eighteenth birthday, when for some reason I glowed with particular force all day long. The early days of my marriage and after the births of my children, when what was reflected in the mirror was a contented woman, brimming with love.
But after pulling out those memories, I couldn’t go much further. Except for some special occasions here and there, that’s about it. I’ve spent most of my lifetime looking into the mirror in dismay.
I am not and have never been what you’d call a beautiful woman. I’m not ugly, and my eyes are nice, but the proportions are a bit off — chin too long, cheekbones too well hidden, lips thin, and my nose — well, my first boyfriend called it a lump of melted Plasticine, perhaps with affection. Another boyfriend told me I had a Communist face, and I knew exactly what he meant. And a third said he found me irresistible because I didn’t let being plain stop me from living an interesting life. Yes, there’s a serious issue with my early choice of men, no question.
What would it be like to walk into a room, just stand there, and be admired? Instead of having to be amusing and smart and au courant, to sparkle for your bit of attention. Sure, my beautiful friends don’t have easy lives; there’s a price to pay for beauty. Just once, I would have liked to pay it. Instead, all my life, I’ve looked in the mirror and wished to see someone else.
But the other day, with “Because it is my face” ringing in my ears, I contemplated that familiar reflection in the bathroom mirror and thought, You’re getting old, honey, and what you see will not get prettier. Are you going to go on fretting about what is?
Imagine, looking at myself with scorn during my teens because I was a 32A when the desirable female body was a 38DD. Once breasts appeared, small but at least visible, then for years I despised my body because of its baggage, expanding and shrinking up and down ten to thirty pounds, not acceptably skeletal, like Twiggy’s. I didn’t see the strength and grace, the creative power of my woman’s body, or the glossy auburn hair and smooth skin, the eyes full of humour and curiosity. All I noticed was what the magazines didn’t approve of.
And when life stabilized and included healthy food and exercise, so weight was no longer that much of an issue, then age became the issue. Except during my two pregnancies, when it didn’t matter how I looked as long as I was healthy, what drew my disapproving attention was the bulge over the waistband and then the increasingly crinkly skin.
What a waste, I thought, standing in front of my magnifying mirror. All those years disliking what I saw; what I am. Wishing to see, to be someone else. Let’s start now, I said to myself, accepting, no, cherishing it all.
I cherish you, Face, I said. There’s loveliness in your openness and empathy and warmth. You have carried me through all the days and nights, as have you, Body, phenomenal machine beneath my head, still blessedly healthy and resilient, whom I cherish too. The miracle of all those infinitely complex moving parts, still functioning after so many years. Despite the decades of conditioning forced on every first world woman born in the twentieth century, I will try very hard never to say or think anything negative about you again.
For how much longer do we have on our voyage together, this face and this body and I?
Beth Kaplan’s new memoir Midlife Solo: writing through chaos to find my place in the world coming out on November 6th.
Her essays are about a divorced single mom in midlife struggling to come into her own in a complicated world. They are written with warmth, humour, and sometimes devastating honesty.
If you order the book before its release, you will get a discount. Here’s the link: mosaicpress.ca/products/midlife-solo
Beth has taught memoir writing at two universities in Toronto for 29 years and has nurtured many writers, including yours truly. She has had a remarkable life, and I can’t wait to read her book.