I was wearing the past few sleepless nights on my face when I woke up this morning. Fatigue, worry, stress, even flashes of anger at myself and at the neighbor’s dog (not his fault) had etched itself into lines that had settled into the tissues around my eyes.
Baggage. I was carrying it around in generous pouches stuffed with problems, both real and perceived, under my eyes.
It takes a couple nights of quality sleep for the puffiness to subside so I can look normal again. Each time this happens, though, I worry that one day I’ll remain puffy no matter how much sleep I get.
That day is bound to come. Will I be able to handle it when it does? Adjust to the new look? Or will I hide behind what my daughter refers to as my “bug-eye” sunglasses even on the darkest of days?
Not long ago I was cleaning out a closet and rediscovered an old Mr. Potato Head box tucked in
a back corner under a pile of stuffed animals no one wants anymore. The wide variety of eyes, ears, noses, mouths, teeth, moustaches, and even hair made of felt, got me to thinking. As my features begin to change, albeit in small increments, I wonder if I should start piecing my old self back together before I need an entire overhaul all at once. Should I replace my parts, update the aging version of myself and deny chronology the dictatorship it craves? Effect a coup?
Maybe I should tape a picture of my younger self on the refrigerator to remind me what I used to look like. What I still want to look like.
The kids had fun with Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, changing their appearance so often we almost forgot which face we started with. But when you make one change, the whole thing kind of mushrooms and a domino affect takes place. I could use a new nose, higher cheekbones, thinner eyebrows and thicker hair. Maybe larger eyes and fuller lips, too. I could have a new face, but it would be counterfeit, wouldn’t it?
A counterfeit face.
I’m not talking about a Tammy Faye Bakker face with makeup so thick it must have taken a chisel to remove each night. Nor am I referring to a featureless countenance with every shred of authenticity botoxed away or scraped off and cut out with a scalpel.
And what about genetics? They play a huge role in what we look like and how we age. Other factors figure into this equation, too. Pain, for one. Stress, for another. Illness (yours or someone else’s), anger, disappointment, and the list goes on.
As we age, our tissues become thinner, and heavy, opaque colors we use to enhance our features take on weight. Lips begin to shrink, and our faces have greater difficulty handling the weight of, say, a heavy red, a purple, or a black. Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes continues to wear a heavy red lipstick that bleeds into the powdered grooves around her mouth. Does she do this thinking that the bright color coupled with its application outside the natural lip-line imparts a more youthful look? It brings to mind a commercial where an elderly woman is touching up her lipstick in the airplane’s restroom as the plane experiences turbulence. She returns to her seat, none the wiser, with lipstick all over the lower half of her face. She reminds me of Leslie Stahl, oblivious to the discordant note she strikes by painting a bright red outside her natural lip-lines, and not always carefully.
Enhanced lips are considered more youthful, and many women, celebrities in particular, turn to lip injections of varying kinds to beef them up – Angelina Jolie, and daughter Shiloh, are the exceptions here, having been born with lips other women can only aspire to. Meg Ryan’s lips are so bloated and misshapen, she’s almost unrecognizable as the perky, beautiful woman who played in Sleepless in Seattle. Ditto Melanie Griffith who was gorgeous in Working Girl but whose features have taken an unnatural turn for the worse since then.
The gradual appearance of wrinkles poses another problem, developing over time into weighty folds of brocaded drapery, pulled downward by gravity. Two words: Mick Jagger, who has thus far shunned the plastic surgeon’s knife.
Skin tone changes, too, becoming lighter as the aging process moves forward. If you don’t want to adopt the look of a corpse, or a vampire, you’ve got to modify your hair color as you age – a softer brown makes a better frame than a harsh “shoe-black” against a pasty white face.
But the fact is we just don’t see ourselves as others see us – and herein lies the biggest problem. Changes occur incrementally, each small change almost unnoticeable from the one before. It’s easy to adapt to smaller changes coming one at a time over a period of months or years, so we miss what strikes others as obvious. Look at Donald Trump – a man desperate to avoid baldness in an attempt to remain young. Hair loss is gradual. You comb over a few hairs here, a few there, then a few months later, a few more. It happens so slowly, you can’t see how ridiculous your “comb-overs” have begun to look.
You become a joke you don’t get.
The same thing happens with weight gain. This explains girls wearing jeans so tight that rolls of fat are forced up and over their waistbands. If this change occurred overnight, the problem would be obvious even to them. It might encourage the purchase of jeans that fit properly, smoothing out the rough spots instead of opting for jeans that accentuate them. Size does not matter as much as a good fit does.
We deny what’s obvious to everyone but ourselves until we stand in front of that unforgiving mirror in the department store. Department store mirrors are hateful things, their harsh lights magnifying every single flaw. Even so, we continue to deny what we see.
We need an easy fix for this, one like Sesame Street once offered its Muppets. “Vendaface” – the machine that offered a variety of noses, ears, mouths, lips, and hair – was the answer to the Muppets’ self-image problems via machine-dispensed facelifts. For a small price they could change the parts they didn’t like, try out entirely new faces, or replace only what had worn out or gotten old. Wouldn’t it be great if it worked like this for the population in general? I guess it does if you have loads of money and can find a good plastic surgeon. Self-esteem at the end of a knife or the point of a needle.
My mother was blessed with good skin tone and her face still doesn’t look like it belongs to someone who just turned 88, but she had a jarring moment a few years ago after cataract surgery. Looking in her mirror afterward, her first words were “Oh-my-god, I’m so wrinkled! Why didn’t you tell me?”
I thought she looked pretty good for her age, but she didn’t view it that way.
Then there’s Joan Rivers whose expressionless face is immortalized in something akin to seamless plastic. She wears the same expression for every emotion. Well, it works for Barbie, I guess.
Fewer people than we think are satisfied with who they are – if it’s not hair, it’s weight, a bulge here, a spare tire there, crow’s feet, laugh lines. And plastic surgery has become big, big business. So have tanning booths, despite the cancer warnings, and tattoo parlors – all are designed to cover up, minimize, or eradicate and replace the things we view as deficiencies because we want to feel better about ourselves.
Why aren’t we good enough the way we are? Why aren’t we comfortable in our own skin and with the faces we’ve grown into by virtue of our experiences?
Maybe Dorian Gray had the only answer that works. If words could make wishes come true, we’d each have a portrait of our younger selves tucked safely away in a closet somewhere – a portrait that would do the aging for us. We’d never have to bother with counterfeit faces again.
But we don’t really want to go there, do we?