Look At My Ugly Face

March 15, 2009

The Blue Streak

The Blue Streak

I look young for my age. At 8, I pouted for days when told I was too short to ride the Blue Streak at Cedar Point. In sixth grade, I came up to the chins of the fourth graders. In junior high, baby fat still refused to say goodbye to my belly and chubby was an adjective of choice. In high school I started to see breasts and finally was allowed to exchange my undershirt for a starter bra. In 11th grade, I fought bitterly with mom who insisted I shop the girl’s department instead of Junior wear.

In college, classmates took me for a precocious high-schooler with early enrollment and bouncers carded me at clubs until I turned 39. I bore a strong resemblance to my Russian grandfather who died in his mid-70s looking like he’d just hit the half-century mark. “Good genes” people said. “Not fair.” I thought and waited for my body to grow into me.

In my 20s and 30s I began to resemble my age group, still adolescence stuck to me like a half-eaten Sugar Daddy and my features never quite matured past the state of awkward.

But on July 4th at age 40, a friend snapped pictures at my cattle dog Caleb’s first bithday party. Caleb was wearing a plastic Elizabethan dog collar decorated with metallic stars: my firecracker. I looked almost beautiful.

I sent photos to my mother in Willoughby and she commented “Oh, you’re going to be one of those women.” “What women?” I asked. “The ones who grow beautiful with age.”

I looked at the photos and believed her. Past suitors had thrown compliments out: “cute,” “pretty,” and sometimes “beautiful” but only when dizzy with love. The tip of my nose ends in a night light-sized bulb and the older I get the more it takes center stage. My eyes, like twins, don’t like to be too far apart and are deeply embedded into my face, creating a chiaroscuro effect beneath my bottom lashes.

But at 40, suddenly everything came into balance – perhaps it was a trick of light or maybe I finally lost the baby fat. The ridge on my nose grew soft, my hair sprouted curls, the bags beneath my eyes grew lighter and I developed a glow that can only come with the wisdom of years and expensive Chanel anit-aging serums. catherine-deneuve1

I imagined that if my facial luck continued I might morph into a dark-haired version of Catherine Deneuve who, irregardless of pounds gained or cigarettes smoked, remains joyously radiant, her skin still firm and stretched tightly across the Gallic facial bones that have carved her image into celluloid as the icon of eternal French beauty.

So I coasted on my newly-found, ripened and aged beauty and delighted in the idea that I would grow more beautiful and lustrous with each passing year.

And then I hit 49 and crashed into a Stop sign shaped like a mirror. Gravity grabbed at my skin and tackled my face pulling it down to the 50 year old yard line. I gained ten pounds which made a loving leap to my cheeks and tummy. As a child, chubby is playful; chubby babies win pageants. Stout middle-aged women don’t pass GO or collect compliments.

Men stopped looking at me in “that way.” They see me now as a mother or aunt and the youngest consider me grandmother material. They don’t avoid my gaze, they simply don’t notice me. I blend in; a middle-aged woman walking down the street, her face gently falling like an overcooked souffle that is slowly losing air.

I think about plastic surgery and am terrified; not of the surgery or results, but of being put to sleep which is one of my lifelong phobias. I study pictures of unlined celebrities in US Weekly and contemplate a little botox in the small furrow between my eyebrows and then remember the articles I’ve read about faces permanently frozen in a state of suspended anticipation.

I gaze into the mirror and pull tight the skin beneath my eyes. I angle my head to the side, placing my right index finger over the offending knob on my nose. I construct ways to convince my insurance company to cover the cost of a nose job; after all I do have a deviated septum so perhaps a repair and quick shave to the bone would be medically recommended for easier breathing and a prettier face.

I thought I could hold this off longer. I thought I could wait ’till 60 before I had to seriously consider invasive techniques to restore me to my less then former glory. But age and gravity have snuck up on me quickly this year and I am unhappy every time I catch my face in the mirror or, worse yet, see a photo of myself standing next to my husband who is a decade younger and looks it.

I secretly support and cheer on the women who have the money and the guts to put themselves under the knife and wonder if that makes me shallow. Why can’t I embrace my age and enjoy the falling chin and misalighed forehead? Do I blame this on fashion magazines, Hollywood or both? Or do I simply thank the universe that normal women like me can go to a surgeon and have things tweaked and turned and come out with a more youthful, fresher face?

I consider myself a feminist yet here I am contemplating having a plastic surgeon cut open my face to cut off my years. Does Gloria Steinham get botox or has she evolved past that point? What would Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir or Virginia Woolf think of my vanity? Would Gertrude Stein quote me the following lines from her famous poem Sacred Emily:

Gertrude & Alice

Gertrude & Alice

“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose
Loveliness extreme.
Extra gaiters,
Loveliness extreme.
Sweetest ice-cream.
Pages ages page ages page ages”

And would I hear in her words how a rose is nothing more than a flower on a stem that eventualy ages, ages, ages? Would she roast me at one of her Saturday evening salons in Paris at 27, rue de Fleurus surrounded by Picasso, Matisse, Hemmingway and her girlfriend Alice B. Toklas? Would they laugh at my addiction to youth and dismiss me as hopeless and point their attention towards a discussion of the direction of Modernism in art and music?

A friend from my past Sara Halprin wrote a book called “Look at My Ugly Face! Myths, Musings Beauty Other Perilous Obsessions with Women’s Appearance.” I was disturbed when she first shared the title. The words and sentiment were so hard-edged, like the breaking of something antique and china on cold stark cement. And yet, the title summed up perfectly what I and many women I have known believe to be true – that we are ugly, our faces, our bodies

Rossetti's Helen of Troy

Rossetti's Helen of Troy

and that no matter how many times we read Camile Paglia, Naomi Wolf or Sara Halprin, we always come back to the mirror and our desire to be Helen of Troy with the face that launched a thousand ships or at least to have a glancing resemblance to Angelia Jolie, Scarlett Johnanson or Marilyn Monroe.

It gets worse as we age, as we see whatever beauty we once might have had begin to fade like the darkening shadow of dusk across the petals of a rose made famous by Gertrude Stein in a repetitive poem that that simply ends in the dreaded word “ages.”

We buy our creams, our potions, we melt our Vitamin B-12 pills under our tongues, we visit the plastic surgeon for a consultation, contemplate the evil needle of botox and stop by the naturopath to see if a homeopathic remedy exists to hold back the aging face of Mother Time.

Will I know when it’s time? And by then will there be less invasive techniques so that a nurse can magically waive a laser over my face and make ten years disappear like a rabbit popping back into a magician’s hat?

Will my extreme fear of the long needle and a general anaesthetic force me into old ladyhood with everything sagging away au natural or will I wake up one morning and embrace the wrinkles as hard-won war paint from a live fully lived? Or will I have lived just as fully and perhaps more happily with a nip here and a tuck there and most importantly with a neck lift because I truly cannot stand the idea of losing my fairly well-formed chin?

I watch a TV show on Wednesday nights called Life On Mars, a sci-fi crime series originally set in London and aired on the BBC; the show has been translated for an American audience to New York City and is set in both 2008 and 1973. The program features some great performances not the least of which is the aging Harvey Keitel paying Lieutenant Gene Hunt as the head New York’s 125th precinct in the days of peace, love and lack of understanding.

As a hardcore officer on the edge of retirement he wields his police baton over a band of sideburned detectives dressed in tight polyester suits who consider interrogation to be a contact sport. The show is both absurd and often touching as one of the detectives – who has been transported from 2008 to 1973 – tries to find his way home.

Lt. Gene Hunt

Lt. Gene Hunt

What I find fascinating about Keitel’s performance is how completely he embraces a fully-lined face, sagging body and out-of-shape physique. He often ends his day in his office at the precinct, dressed in a wife beater T-shirt drinking a glass of scotch, fatty underarms pouring out of the arm holes, loose skin hanging off his jaw, and an expanded belly protruding under the white stretched fabric of his cotton T. He looks every inch of his 69 years and yet, as he sits on the grimy, nicotine-stained avocado green couch circa 1970, there is something noble and dare I say sexy about his realistic portrayal of an aging cop contemplating his deeds and misdeeds of the day.

Is it easier for a man to age then a woman? Would we be equally enamored with a 70-year old Julia Roberts sporting sagging boobs, wrinkled skin and liver patches? Is that what Sara Halprin was trying to tell me all those years ago when she wrote a book called Look At My Ugly Face?

I look into the mirror and notice the flaws. I click through facebook and find old friends who have morphed into middle-aged women. Their eyes and smiles flutter and curve in familiar patterns; I am relieved to see moments of the girls that I knew. But now those features are sinking into the quicksand of drooping skin and folds of fat: we are fun house mirror portraits of our former selves.

I look young for my age, even now. Inside I feel old and see each new line that crosses my face and each new silver hair that pops up unbidden from beneath the color and highlights that have hidden the gray for nearly two decades. Inside I feel 15 but outside I am 50 and beginning to show the pregnancy of age which will culminate in the opposite of birth.

I see my future a la Gertrude Stein: A rose is a rose is a rose. . .Page ages page ages page ages ages ages.