Seven years ago I had life-saving facial surgery which changed my appearance – not for the better, in case you’re wondering. But the key-word there is ‘life-saving’. If I hadn’t had that operation I’d be dead.
At a recent training session I was asked what I think about my face when I see it in the mirror every morning. The question threw me. I made a crack about how useful it is to have (too much) unruly hair. It acts as a distraction, even for me. Other people in the room were quick to say kind things about not having noticed the disfigurement until it was mentioned, or how well I looked etc – all of which was well meaning and generous, but actually made me feel – well, a bit icky. As if I’d gone looking for reassurance, when I hadn’t.
The thing is, it was the wrong question to ask. On the one hand there’s what I think about the changes to my face, and on the other there’s how I feel about them.
What I think is that one half of my face has been surgically altered leaving me scarred, asymmetrical, a bit battered-looking, definitely not pretty. But I was never ‘pretty’, and the rest is objectively, demonstrably, measurably true. Having a lot of hair does soften the impact. Usually.
What I feel is a whole other can of worms. It varies from situation to situation and from mood to mood. There’s a whole entire spectrum of emotion that runs from fierce/defiant/self-conscious through indifferent/relaxed to protective/proud/appreciative. The baseline throughout is gratitude. I’m glad to be still here with the option to feel anything at all.
Here’s another thing: time does surprising things to every face. I’d be willing to bet that many people over 30 feel a small bit alienated from or ambivalent about their outward appearance. It matters in so far as it reflects the persona we assume to do battle in the world, where scars are to be expected – some more visible than others, some more honourable than others, but all tracing the map of a life.
Or do they? Looking back through a diary from my year of surgery, I found this: writing turns you inside out and lays you bare. So does this thing with my face – and yet, in some ways it’s the best mask I’ve ever worn. No one who looks at me now can see me. I have a definite sense of disguise.
When we decide what to wear, what accessories to carry (or not), our decision is about more than weather: it’s about finding the right costume for whatever we have to do that day, whoever we have to be: business-person, bodybuilder, bohemian, bitch. If we need a shot of courage we might wear the red bracelet that catches the sun, or if we want to deflect attention it might be a grey hoodie-and-jeans kind of day. Our fabulous inner selves are the ones who do the choosing and their reasons are not always clear.
If that person had asked what I really feel about my face, down at a level where only truth will do and words are hard to find, I’d have told her what I really feel is: lucky.