I remember exactly the moment I realized the gap between how a person’s face appears and who they feel themselves to be. I was in my early 30s, and I’d gone to hear a lecture at the local university. Taking my seat, I happened to look into the eyes of a man sitting directly across from me. He was a very old man, with a sallow, melancholic face that had settled into deep basset-hound folds. When his eyes met mine, I saw that he was young.
Or rather, I saw that he was neither young nor old.
He looked away and the lecture began, but I was left with a permanent perceptual shift. The effect is rather like a duck/rabbit drawing, or like one of those postcards that seems to leap from two to three dimensions: I look at an old, wrinkled face and suddenly there is a smooth, young face looking back at me with shining eyes. I can also do the reverse and find the old man or woman looking out from a beautiful, unlined face—but I usually don’t. It seems unkind, as if I were rushing a young person toward an early demise.
Strangely, I find it hard to do the shift on myself. When I look in the mirror, I get stopped by the latest version of my face—and I’m almost always slightly shocked. Recently, a friend told me that when she looks in the mirror, she doesn’t recognize herself—and I understood. From week to week, there’s some new insult: the further droop of an eyelid, a perfectly straight tooth deciding to tilt. “You’re kidding!” I feel like exclaiming—as if there’s been some mix-up here, an unfortunate act of vandalism. “Anyone who knows me well could tell you: this face is not my real face!”
But then I remember that the people who’ve known me for years are unreliable witnesses. When they look at me, they see a palimpsest, a layered collage of my past and current selves. I know this, because this is how I see them. My best friend from childhood is now 70, but when I look in her face I can still see the 6-year-old girl with a Buster Brown haircut, flying past me on her scooter on the summer evening in Santa Monica when we first met. In the same way, I can look at my 36-year-old daughter and still see the wrinkled newborn I held for one long moment, her cheek against my cheek, before they whisked her off to an incubator….
Some years ago, a friend who had taken herself abroad for a secret face lift found that only her relatively new friends noticed. They didn’t realize she’d had plastic surgery, but they noticed a strikingly positive change to her appearance (“Did you get a new haircut?” “Were you off at a spa?”). Her family and close friends, however, didn’t notice a thing! They simply looked through her current face to the faces she’d passed through before.
If I can so easily perform the perceptual shift on a stranger and so swiftly see through the many layers in the face of a friend, why is it so hard to do the same for myself? Certainly, I endorse the belief that the increasingly lined and asymmetric face that I call “mine” is not “the real me.” And I sometimes find it unfair that, when I go out into the world and interact with people who don’t know me, these people simply take me at “face value.” Yet this is how I take myself! I look in the mirror, and my magic toggle switch gets stuck, trapping me in a kind of freeze-frame.
From the beginning, our sense of who we are is linked to seeing and being seen.
Of course, as a woman, I’ve been primed since early adolescence to assess my own appearance “objectively,” as if through the eyes of people who don’t know or love me. And somewhere along the line, this imagined gaze of others became more and more inseparable from my own sense of identity—not superficially, but in my very essence.
I remember so vividly my first day of junior high school. After my small elementary school, I felt lost and alone in a vast labyrinth of pea-green, barrack-like buildings. As I was walking down a long corridor, trying to find my way to class, I became aware of footsteps coming quickly behind me. Turning, I saw two older girls—one of whom whispered loudly to the other, “Piano legs!” And then they both sniggered with laughter.
I had no idea what “piano legs” were—but it was clear they were something shameful. This was the first time I’d ever thought of myself as composed of different parts, each of which could be assessed by others. From this moment on, I began to “itemize” my body according to externally derived criteria—and I was no doubt lucky to have made it all the way to seventh grade before this chopping-and-sizing-up began.
Yet here is a bedrock truth of human existence: from the beginning, our sense of who we are is linked to seeing and being seen. Infants enter the world ready to focus on anything that looks like a face, and even the simplest schema—two round black dots for eyes and one black line for a mouth—will draw their fixed attention. Just as an infant’s mouth roots around for a breast, so an infant’s eyes seek to fasten on the eyes of another face. And the two are interconnected: a human mother’s body is shaped so that, during the hours spent breastfeeding, her gaze is naturally drawn downward to her child’s face.
How fortunate—for a puking, mewling infant who is utterly dependent for his very survival on his primary caregiver’s steady attention—if his caregiver finds him irresistibly attractive. Once, long ago, when I looked up the word cute, I was startled to learn that its root has nothing soft or fuzzy about it: rather, it is related to “cut” and to the sharpness of “acute.” I mused then that the cuteness of small humans seems designed to pierce through any hard shell of adult self-centeredness, so that—even at three in the morning—a mother or father may be jolted out of sleep and drawn to their child like a magnet. They are attracted—and at the root of attract is tract, meaning “to pull.”
Our own culture exalts thinness, but there are cultures that revere obesity, which to them represents abundance and ease. And even within a single culture, standards of beauty change fairly rapidly over time: from small, dainty mouths to “bee-stung lips”; from a flat-chested, hipless look to plunging cleavage and “Brazilian” butts. . . . But people who study the cross-cultural criteria of beauty tend to agree that certain traits are universally perceived as highly desirable, such as symmetry and the appearance of youth. As they point out, these traits are associated with good health, and so it makes sense that, over the ages and around the globe, they have been favored in mate selection. While I don’t happen to believe that there must always be some form of intelligent design, some form of deeper purpose underlying human biology and behavior, I find myself wondering: if the cuteness of children helps to pierce the hearts and elicit the attention of adults, and if the beauty of adolescents and young adults helps to attract a mate, is it possible to look in the reverse direction and see any value whatsoever in the fading beauty of old age?
Certainly, the 13th-century Chinese poet Chu Shu-Chen could see no value in her own faded beauty, as she expresses in her sad poem, Morning:
I get up. I am sick of
Rouging my cheeks. My face in
The mirror disgusts me. My
Thin shoulders are bowed with
Hopelessness. Tears of loneliness
Well up in my eyes. Wearily
I open my toilet table.
I arch and paint my eyebrows
And steam my heavy braids.
My maid is so stupid that she
Offers me plum blossoms for my hair.
(Trans. Kenneth Rexroth)
If I could look in the mirror and, rather than getting fixed in the image that (at least mildly) disgusts me, as I tend to do, and as Chu Shu-Chen clearly did, could I let this very unattractiveness finally cut through my identification, just as cuteness cuts through a caregiver’s self-preoccupation?
I was only in my 40s when I first noticed the gaze of strangers tending to dart more swiftly away from me than in the past. And now I often feel that the gaze passes right through me, as though I was a transparent column, standing there, taking up space. Gradually, I’ve become more accustomed to being perceived in this way, but given that I don’t feel much different internally than I ever did, it is strange to grasp that I seem to have become a shade in these strangers’ eyes, someone who doesn’t exist as fully and vividly as they do—unless I rather assertively say something to them about the weather, or their adorable child or dog.
Yet sometimes, out of nowhere, I find myself savoring the invisibility—the way some women who wear the full hijab, with only their eyes peeking out, insist that they wouldn’t choose to dress otherwise, that they appreciate a sense of protected privacy under all those folds of dark fabric, a secret inner world and shared sisterhood, hidden from prying eyes. For myself, I’ve realized that my own pleasure in invisibility is akin to what I feel when sketching, when I gradually lose myself in the role of pure observer—and the world, in its infinite shapes and colors, seems to offer itself up to me to be observed. Maybe this is one way of embracing one’s diminishing ability to attract the gaze of others: to fully take up the mantle of invisibility, to appreciate it as its own kind of superpower, and also as a reminder—again and again, to cast one’s gaze outward.
When Jane Goodall was a young woman, her beauty sometimes got in the way of her life’s work. She seemed, by temperament, someone who had no need or desire to be in the limelight. As a small child in the English countryside, she disappeared for several hours until her frantic family found her crouched in the darkness of their chicken coop, staring at the hens. In Africa, she knew that the publicity from photojournalists would help to further her cause, but she often felt impatient and exasperated with their relentless focus on her. Her passion was to sit quietly, at a distance, until she became such a part of the landscape that her beloved chimpanzees seemed almost to forget that she was there. As she grew older, she must have felt a certain relief at no longer being so captivating for the camera. Perhaps she, too, can offer a clue in the quest to celebrate one’s diminishing ability to pull the gaze of others toward us. Who knows what creatures we might then perceive, with ever more startling clarity, performing amazing antics, chattering and swinging from vines, in the jungle around us? (And at the other extreme, just think of the ever-expanding roster of people who have been so entranced by the sight of their own faces, that they have fallen off cliffs and dropped into volcanoes while taking selfies!)
When my mother turned 50, she began to say that she found her face “funny.” Now, when I remember this, it seems to me that she was onto something. Certainly, laughter seems very far away from Chu Shu-Chen when she looks in the mirror. Once, some years ago, as I was settling into my bunk at the start of a meditation retreat, two women who had arrived a bit late came into the small room, apologizing for their commotion. They both looked to be in their 60s, and I could feel that they were close friends. One of them seemed to have suffered some form of facial paralysis. Half her face looked perfectly normal, but the other half was slumped and drooping and partially held together with bands of tape. As she tried to climb the ladder to her bunk, the tape gave way and her face slumped further, so that she was trying to hold her face up while simultaneously pulling herself up the ladder. Suddenly, she began to laugh, and then her friend began to laugh too. They laughed so hard they began to snort and wheeze, and I began to fear that the woman—who had finally made it to the top—might tumble down. Although their laughter felt painfully contagious, I restrained myself because something about it seemed very intimate. I sensed that it was based on their past together, and the fact that the woman with the droopy face hadn’t always been thus. From the half of her face that didn’t droop, it was clear that she had once been a very attractive woman, and this seemed to be the source of their hilarity—the absurdity that things had come to this! It was as if she was saying, “But this isn’t me!” and as if her friend, through her laughter, was responding, “I know, I know!”
But what if we could laugh at ourselves even when we are most beautifully smooth and symmetric?
Not long ago, a friend came across a quote from the distinguished chef and food writer M. F. K. Fisher, in which she wondered why on earth people were surprised to discover themselves growing older. To my friend, the quote revealed the attitude of someone who had gracefully and rationally accepted old age as part of the natural cycle of human life, a cycle from which they never expected to be personally exempt. In the moment, I gave my friend a nod of agreement, thereby accepting M. F. K.’s sharp rap on my knuckles. But what is dawning on me now is that, if we were really seeing clearly, then we would be surprised—at any stage of life—by the face we saw in the mirror! When we are young, at the peak of whatever physical attractiveness we may possess, there is much less incentive to feel the gap between how we happen to appear at any particular moment and who we really are: that timeless essence that is before and beyond any form that we so briefly pass through. I can remember my Zen teacher, Toni Packer, saying that for most of us, the sense of self lies right behind the eyes. What happens when we begin to feel less tethered to that sense of self?
As a teenager, I went through a period of acute disorientation whenever I gazed into a mirror. It was a bit like when you say a word over and over until it seems to disconnect from any meaning and just floats in the air as a sound. I would look at my own face and—gradually moving beyond all the superficial itemizations (“I wish my forehead was higher…I like the shape of my eyes. . . . ”)—I would find myself losing all sense of identification with my reflection. Or rather, I would feel the sheer absurdity that—of all the millions of living beings that I might be—I happened to be this one: a 16-year-old girl staring at her reflection in a bathroom in northern California.
Unfortunately, far from making me laugh, the experience was disturbing to me, somewhat dizzying, and it got so I couldn’t go into the bathroom without leaving the door slightly ajar. Finally, I told my father about it, and he said, “Ah, yes, the mirror experience!” He normalized the discomfort for me so that gradually it faded, and I could go into the bathroom, shut the door, and stare at my face like any teenage girl, wishing my forehead was higher, pleased with my eyes. . . .
Show me your face before you were born!
When I first discovered this Zen koan, many years after the mirror experience, I had a feeling of “Aha!” That’s the face I’d glimpsed in the mirror and found so dizzying. Apart from my father labeling the experience, which gave it some validation, I had no way of working with it, no practice through which to take it more deeply into myself and let it become an opening. I simply stopped at the fear and profound disorientation it induced.
I confess that I’ve never been much of one for faithfully carrying out the written spiritual exercises that come at the end of essays like this one. (In fact, I’ve sometimes even wondered who the Goody Two-shoes are who do!) But the following is an exercise that I can recommend because it is one that I have been doing myself for the past several weeks, and I can testify that it brings a liberating sense of relief:
Look steadily at your own face in the mirror. Allow the various judgments to arise: my crow’s-feet are so deep, my lips are so thin, my neck is sagging….
Have compassion for yourself; don’t be quick to dismiss these judgments as signs of what a vain and superficial person you are. Remember that the identification of self with face is primal and profound, and—particularly if you are a woman—this identification has been powerfully reinforced, from your most formative years and in all manner of ways, by the surrounding culture.
Keep looking until the various “itemizations” drop away and you are left only with the basic underlying emotion. For many people of a certain age, this will be a feeling of dismay, aversion, surprise bordering on mild shock, bringing with it the question: how can this be me?
Stay with this question. Let yourself be penetrated by the sense of disconnection between how you appear and who you feel yourself to be. Let this sense of disconnection cut through the superficial layers of identification with this current version of your face.
Now—as if you were looking at the full moon and seeing its various waxing and waning shapes—see if you can picture the earlier phases of your own face looking back at you, taking you through time: young adult, adolescent, child, baby. . . .
Look into your own eyes and see the witness who knows: none of these versions, even the loveliest, the ones with whom I would have been happiest to remain, have ever been the real me. The lined, drooping face has always been there, lurking in the perfectly smooth and symmetric face of the young person you once were.
Keep looking until, like the woman holding her face together with tape and one hand as she climbed the ladder to the top bunk, you find yourself bursting into laughter.
This laughter is your answer to the famous Zen koan: Show me your face before you were born! And though Chu-Shen was disgusted when her maid offered her a plum blossom, your laughter is also another way of conveying a Zen image that recurs in paintings and poems, and that I will pose as this question: On the gnarled branch of an old tree in winter, can you see the spring blossom burst forth?
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