by Dorothy Wall
from Breaking Free: Women of Spirit at Midlife and Beyond
On an Oprah show about weddings, a celebrity appeared with her daughter to regale viewers with the extravagant details of her daughter's wedding: gold-embroidered napkins; jewel-strung dress; dense, velvet stands of roses and tulips as if out of a Renaissance oil-painting. I found myself watching like the outsider we all are to celebrity lives, fascinated and appalled. (Over three million dollars for a wedding when the fourth graders my daughter teaches are virtually without books!)
As mother, daughter and Oprah gushed, I was struck by the celebrity's face. Sitting next to her daughter, who looked like a regular person, this woman looked not like a mother but a caricature of her younger self, her skin so face-lift taut as to be masklike, eyes weighted with mascara, blond pageboy that fit like a helmet. She made me think of a Marcel Marceau mime routine in which a man is stuck in a laughing mask. He makes a great effort to pull it off, heaving and staggering around the stage, but can't dislodge it. The audience laughs at his antics, seeing only his laughing face, while underneath the mask the man is crying. No one can see his pain. He is caught in his solitude, alone with what he feels, unrecognized.
This woman's face had become that mask, a smiling reproduction of youth, divorced from the self inside. It made me sad, evoking echoes of Dickens's Miss Havisham sitting for decades in her moldering wedding dress, waiting for her groom who never arrives. Unable to arrest the moment of youthful ardor and anticipation, Miss Havisham arrests only the props around her, and even they decay until she is jilted by time as much as by love. For all its careful preservation, this celebrity's face, like that yellowed wedding dress, was a costume that with each passing year would be less matched to the person inside.
Those who have face-lifts may think they have preserved their face. In fact, they have been defaced, the marks of a life removed, the blemishes, the idiosyncracies. We think of defacing as spoiling what was originally pristine, perfect. This defacing is the opposite: it attempts to restore perfection by stripping a face of what is personal, singular. To be defaced is to lose part of the self, our individual expression.
The promise of the reconstructed face is not just that it will be eternally young or perfect, but that it is reproducible. If it can be made for celebrities it can be made for others, the same high cheekbones, taut skin. We can mold a face, make it as art object, manipulate it, change it. We can do it for you. The face has become a consumer product, an exchangeable commodity. It can be both discarded and acquired, an emblem of commerce and exchange. Familiar terrain for women. To reclaim our natural face is to step out of this commercial landscape.
After the Oprah show I was compelled to dig up and pin above my desk an old postcard/photo of artist Georgia O'Keeffe, standing in the desert like a tree. O'Keeffe's face is turned away from the camera, unconcerned with the viewer. She gazes into the distance as if focused on an inner vision and the grandeur of the desert around her at the same time. Her face is lined, stolid, implacable, like photos of Indian warriors. There is no artifice, no cover, no disjunction between face and self. She is not smiling, neither does she appear sad. She radiates strength and self-possession, a word she embodies: to literally possess the self, to not be apart from who you are.
If the cover-up of the aging face, as Jungian psychologist James Hillman and others contend, acts to discourage the revelation of character, then a face left bare is a revealing marker of a life. It is precisely this exposure that produces the urge to disguise. What if our face shows sadness, strain, fatigue--or worse, our own fragility and decay, no longer a perfect surface. So what, O'Keeffe says. This is the whole of who I am.
In a remarkable statement about the trap of perfection, actress Heddy Lamarr lamented in her 1966 autobiography Ecstacy and Me, "My face has been my misfortune....My face is a mask I cannot remove. I must always live with it. I curse it." A woman of intelligence and humor, she felt confined by a public perception that equated her self with her beautiful face. How ironic and sad that other women work hard to reproduce that confinement.
To don the mask of perfection reinforces a narrow definition of beauty and acceptability that will heighten not dissipate our anxieties about age. The artificial and ultimately futile attempt to stop our natural progression into age is an act of self-abandonment. We become like both Marceau's audience, who can't see, and the man behind the laughing mask, who is trapped: we're unable to see how we're trapped in our own effort.
To face: to meet or confront squarely. To confront with boldness, courage. Facing: to turn the face in a specified direction. Like many people, I track my loss of youth with the eyes of the amazed inner self struggling to adjust. But I hope I'll have the courage to face my aging with curiosity, amusement, pride, and equanimity, and to confront boldly or turn away from the viewer's gaze. Like O'Keeffe, I want to draw my gaze from within and focus it outward on the astounding world around me.
Originally published in Witness, Vol. XVI, No. 2, 2002, Special Issue, Aging in America. Reprinted in Breaking Free: Women of Spirit at Midlife and Beyond, edited by Marilyn Sewell, Beacon Press, 2004.