growing accustomed to my face

NOTE: In mid-March when the lock-down started, I decided to start writing “dispatches” in the form of emails to a group of friends and family. I was enjoying having lots of time to myself, but did not want to lose touch with others. What’s below is excerpted from the May 17 dispatch, updated with my always-changing sense of self, and illustrated with photos of me at various stages of life.

I am still planning a post all about my aura photo from Sedona, but I need to spend some time transcribing the audio recording of what the aura-reader (or whatever he calls himself) told me about how the colors shifted during the one-minute time span of the photo and what that meant. After that one, I promise to stop obsessing over myself and take a look around to see what else is going on.

You may have noticed that my WordPress photo (the one above this post’s title on the home page) is from a LONG time ago, in my mid-twenties. I remember that day — in 1977, I think? — so well. In those days, I wore my hair very long and had just had it trimmed. The stylist that day asked after cutting it if she could braid my hair. I loved the way she did it, but didn’t know how to do it myself, so the photo brings back a fleeting moment of time when I felt good about having my photo taken.

“Growing accustomed to my face” has been a lifelong challenge, and the coronavirus has initiated a new, intensified phase. I have never been one to stare into a mirror any more than necessary. Doing so was discouraged in my childhood, particularly by my dad, who disapproved of what he called “primping” (defined as giving oneself more than a passing glance in a mirror). When I had a dorm room to myself my senior year of college, there was a large mirror on the back of the door that I couldn’t avoid, so I made a curtain and installed a curtain rod so I didn’t have to look at myself except for brief, daily grooming. I realize that this sounds nun-like and/or pathological. Such is the power of a parent’s words on a sensitive kid, I guess.

I don’t hate the way I look, but neither do I love it, and now I’m forced to confront my image more than I would like because of all the Zoom meetings with students and friends. My UU choir is meeting virtually a couple of times a month. Zoom is NOT the place for ensemble playing or singing due to “latency issues.” I don’t understand what that is, but I hear the results, and it’s horrible. Not only is it chaotic to listen to, it’s also disconcerting that our lips are not even moving at the same time. So Benjie, our director, mutes everyone when we sing when meeting online. We can still hear the piano or guitar and his voice, but are spared listening to the whole group cacophony.

Our congregation is meeting online for services, and Benjie would like for us to appear there as a “virtual choir” in a pale approximation of this one. This requires each of us to make a video of ourselves singing our part while listening on a headset or earbuds to the accompaniment, with a metronomic beat to make sure we will be in sync. 

If I were to rate self-image challenges in order of daunting-ness (from least to greatest), it would go like this, descriptor in italics: 

  1. looking in a mirror – tolerable
  2. seeing myself on a video call (where I can at least dilute the experience by looking at the others) – manageable
  3. having my picture taken (I don’t seem to know how to smile without forcing it, and candid shots nearly always catch my face in a particularly grotesque mid-animated expression – intimidating
  4. considering what I said in #3, seeing photos of myself – humiliating
  5. staring at myself as I sing into a video camera, attempting to look like I’m enjoying myself – extremely brave

It’s unnerving to see images of myself, still or in motion. Since I’m used to my mirror image, my face as it looks to others appears oddly asymmetrical. And on video, I am horribly transfixed by the movements of my mouth, which look like they’ve been created by CGI. Benjie has now asked me to prepare some piano pieces and video-record them for use in Sunday services, which opens up a whole new world for visual self-critique — posture, wobbly upper arms, etc. 

All this is to say nothing of my awareness of the ravages of time: wrinkles, of course, stringy neck and incipient jowls. The aging, though, I expected and I could tolerate that if I had grown accustomed to my face earlier in life. So, it’s time to do that somehow. 

A friend from the choir told me she felt the same way about seeing herself on Zoom, and I was able to offer her words that were encouraging enough to her that she thanked me and took on the challenge of contributing a solo video recording of herself. Hmm. . . what did I say to her? Well, I happen to have those words in an email: 

My least favorite part of Zoom is having to look at myself! Other people don’t mind looking at me (I don’t think!), and I certainly don’t mind at ALL looking at you! For some reason, we are all overly aware of our perceived imperfections. For me, it’s my developing jowls, my yucky skin, my big head . . . I could go on, but you get the idea! . . . I am much less self-conscious about how I look with the choir members than with strangers because I feel sure that they love me and aren’t tuning in to the same imperfections I see in myself. I hope you know the same is true for you! I liked the way you looked even before I grew to love you, and even more so now!

I can be so supportive and loving with other people. My aim right now is to treat myself as I (usually) treat others. It’s kind of the opposite of the Golden Rule now that I think of it: Do unto yourself as you do to others. Worth a try. [BTW, my choir friend has recorded herself for all the videos since that time, and I have, too. Hear our latest, best virtual choir performance below.]

Enough, MORE than enough. This is usually a whispered conversation within myself, but I’m hoping that writing about it helps me put it in perspective and accept the reality of what I look like. Thanks for listening. If any of you have felt the same, let me know — my guess is that I’m not alone. And if you USED to feel this way and got over it, I’d like to hear about that even more!

So here’s the photo gallery, in two parts.

  • Around age 3 sitting on my grandparents’ front porch swing.
  • At this moment, in 7th grade or so, my self-image crystallized. This image inevitably showed up every time my dad showed slides (too often), and my mom would always say, “Looks like you screwed on your hose.” It was taken on a Sunday after church, and as always when he was taking pictures, my dad insisted that we stare into the sun. I made that outfit, and I was proud of it at the time, thinking I looked really good. I still lack fashion sense, and need to rely on the opinions of others, but sometimes I forget to ask. [I don’t plan to ever include any photo of our daughter Katie’s wedding that has me in it. I really should have had Katie approve that old dress from my closet before I wore it.]
  • College days in Spokane circa 1973.
  • Top right (then clockwise) Last year when we were in Greece. I cropped Richard out. He loves having his picture taken — no self-image problems there.
  • 50th birthday, 2007.
  • I keep this one around to help me feel better about how I look when I’m not having an allergic reaction. For the whole story, see my first blog post. Amazing how gorgeous all the other photos look in comparison. I feel better already.
  • Holland, 2005. I cropped the photo, but left the nose-picker in. I like him.
  • Scotland gift shop 2005 again. I didn’t buy the hat.
  • I’m guessing sometime around when we got married in 1983.

So there. I’m done. On to my aura next time.

Music

Since I wrote the above, our UU choir has done several “virtual choir” recordings. The first ones were very unpolished and sounded pretty awful, but the congregants responded well when they saw them at the virtual Sunday morning services. (Note I didn’t say they liked hearing them — I can’t imagine that they did — but they liked seeing our faces.)

Our last one, however, had the huge advantage of a professional sound mixer, my son Sam. I think it still sounds vaguely like us, but polished up for public viewing and hearing. So, even though I remain highly self-critical about my appearance, I’m sharing Climbing High Mountains.


I completely forgot to include a kid quip in my last post, so here are two!

from the mouths (and pencils) of kids

Josh, a 15-year-old student we hadn’t seen since the spring came back in the fall, having obviously gone through a growth spurt. I said, “You’re growing like the proverbial weed!” He replied, “That’s some fancy verbiage. . . or wait. . .
do I mean vocabbage?”

from the mouths (and pencils) of kids

This one is from pencils, not mouths.
One way I assess vocabulary is to give students a list of words that get progressively harder and ask them to write a sentence for each. The word “rugged” elicited unexpected answers from two students.
1) “I rugged at the teacher when she asked me a question.”
[I guess he didn’t know the answer] and my favorite
2) “My whole house is rugged.” [one syllable]

One comment

  1. Wow… so much to comment on here. I too struggle with all of the photo taking experiences that you describe. I do, however, feel that I have made progress toward self-acceptance. I could list a million reasons why I believe that I am self-conscious about the frozen image (or really any image), but a few come to mind.

    First, I remember how obsessed my mother was with the size of her nose. As a child, whenever I was along for the -new sunglasses- shopping trip, I knew there was going to be at least a 45 minute “how does my nose look in these” discussion forthcoming. Or any photo of her taken would involve a comment to the effect of “but my nose looks terrible.” I inherited some of those self-obsessive tendencies (at least as an inward echo). Now, as an astrologer, I can tell you that my mother has her Mercury (Mind/speech) very close to her Sun (Self/body) in her chart (the planets a few degrees apart at birth), and so what she thinks about (or speaks about) is often very closely related to her Self. But, that is another story and may not be helpful to you or your readers. 😉

    Second, my friend Kim, every photo I have of her (or have seen of her), she is making a ridiculous face. Tongue out, twisted lips, exaggerated frown, and so on. I assume that she has similar photo phobias, but inside she has a magnanimous superstar personality, so the goofiness fits her. I’m afraid that my inside is like a watery reflection of whatever I am involved in emotionally that day, and if you take a photo of me during that process, you WILL see my thoughts across my face. (My Mercury is in Cancer, the watery moon of emotion, so I think and speak in emotions and intuitions) :-p

    The solution? I’m sure different for many… but practice makes perfect with anything. I’ve found that what we shy away from, both haunts and consumes us until we face it. So ripping off the band-aid and blasting it to the blog seems like a very good approach toward success in this venture! Thank you for sharing!

    Like

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