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Worse Than Hating Your Body: Hating Your Face

When you hate what you see when you face yourself, the scars are
This is a little tough for me to write, but since I've never seen
anything in print about it I figured it might be something other
people scanned pages for, even if they might not admit it. It's
nothing fancy, but here goes.
For most of my life I absolutely believed that if I had better skin, the
whole world would be a wonderful place to be. Everything would be
easier; this is what I figured at 16, then 19, then 22. I would
automatically become more desirable and charming. I could be cute;
I could even try being "girlish" and sweet just for the heck of it. I
could look straight into the camera. I could cut my hair short; I could
wear a ponytail in public. I could use cheap makeup without
worrying that I'd break out or look lurid and tough. I could lighten
up. I could be less angry, less defensive, less miserable.
I figured I'd be less ashamed of facing the day without a scarred
face. And I was ashamed -- constantly and profoundly ashamed. As
a teenager, I totally blamed myself for the poor condition of my skin
and would make serious, often written, vows to give up soda, pizza
and chocolate -- too bad, since now most dermatologists agree
that diet doesn't have much to do with acne. Almost every diary
from those years begins with a New Year's resolution to forgo oily
foods, as if that was going to begin my Cinderella-like
transformation into a girl who could appear on the pages
of Seventeen or Mademoiselle.
I especially identified with Cinderella out of all the fairy-tale
possibilities because it seemed to me that bad skin was something
poor kids seemed to have; the wealthier ones had parents who
would take them to doctors, or even specialists, or for facials, or buy
them the right kinds of magical products that would minimize the
problem. Poor kids were left to comb our hair over our foreheads
and put our hands up to cover our faces as often as possible. Yes, of
course, it was the worst possible thing to do, but try to tell that to
someone who is interested only in hiding.
You've never seen a girl with rough skin in a movie; you've never
seen any woman whose flawless, silken face is anything but perfect.
It just doesn't happen. Guys who have rough faces are usually cast
as the tough characters, mobsters or evildoers, but at least they get
roles and they are visible in some way.
While it's true that physical perfection has always been at an
absolute premium for women, a beautiful face is la creme de la
creme -- it is at once the most essential and it is the most valued
element of loveliness. You can, after all, get a body double; there is
no face double to be used for the closeups. You are your face. And
when you hate your face, it's a pretty short step to hating yourself.

OK, it sounds like I should be asking you to get out the violins. It's
not a sense of adolescent whining I'm trying to convey, but instead
to give a sketch map of a real issue for a lot of girls and women (and
maybe for men as well, although I imagine it would be slightly
different). How is this different from worrying about weight, for
For one thing, weight is (for better or worse) a topic the culture has
supplied with a large vocabulary; giggling or weepy girls trade diet
stories the way boys trade baseball cards.
The only girls who ever drew attention to one of their facial
imperfections (a nice way of saying "zits"), however, were the ones
who had skin like Glenn Close, just as the girls who usually shrieked
about putting on a pound were usually the ones wearing the
skintight jeans and looking good in them.
And, yes, it is both true and tragic that eating disorders can destroy
the lives of some young women, while in contrast few people have
died from acne. But when it's your face you're trying not to look at,
the pain is deeply real.
When did it get easier? My husband Michael made all the difference
in the world to me when, very early on in our relationship, he
wanted to stroke my face. Gently but unhesitatingly, I pushed his
hand away and told him not to touch my cheek because I felt too
self-conscious, too uncomfortably aware of my own unloveliness. He
asked again, and kept asking, telling me he loved how I looked. I
told him I was ashamed of the scars, and he told me that it wasn't
scars that he saw, that whatever scars I was talking about were the
ones left inside, from a long time ago, not ones facing the world
every day.
Not to sound too corny or anything, but I took him seriously and
spent time looking at what inside wounds needed healing and what
inside work needed doing. And I started to be able to look at myself
a little more steady and to face the world.
--reviewed and revised from an earlier essay