If you were asked to draw your face from memory, could you? Could you represent the lines, the moles, the marks? Could you describe the shape of your ears or your mouth? What about the precise hue of your eyes? What about the freckles on your nose? What about your cheekbones?
For many of us our faces are strangers, or acquaintances at best. We are familiar with a few features. But our relationship is superficial. There are glances here and there. We walk by the mirror, say a polite, “Hi, how are you?” and swiftly look away. Or we say “Ughhh.” Or we say, “Wow. I don’t recognize you at all,” or “Wow. I wish you were different.”
Maybe you look at your face as you apply a nightly cleanser and splash some water. Maybe you look at it as you’re brushing your teeth. Maybe you look at your face as you’re applying your makeup. Or maybe you don’t really look at it at all.
Today, we are obsessed with youth, obsessed with freezing time—and freezing our faces. We paralyze muscles so our faces are wrinkle-free. We plump our lips, because thin lips are old lips. We aren’t used to seeing faces with lines and marks and scars in magazines, because everything is Photoshopped. Everything is soft and supple and manipulated. And unreal. All of this makes it harder to accept our faces, let alone look at them.
Have you ever looked at your face for more than 30 minutes? An hour? Three hours?
That’s what novelist Ruth Ozeki did: She spent 3 hours looking at her face, really seeing it, which she chronicles in her beautiful, thoughtful book The Face: A Time Code. What she finds is everything from her mother’s and grandfather’s cheekbones to features that, at the end of the 3 hours, have become more familiar, features that have softened, eyes that look less sad.
There were many years when I barely looked at my face, which explains why I thought my eyes were tiny, only to realize that my glasses just made them seem that way. When I started wearing contacts, I essentially saw my eyes for the first time. Because how often do we look into our own eyes?
Today, when I see my face, I see my father. I have his nose. My lips are mostly my mom’s. There is a perfectly round scar almost in the center of my forehead, a souvenir from having chicken pox at 7 years old. There are new lines and old lines. There are freckles and blemishes. There also is acceptance. There is a thought that brings me peace: My family lives in this face.
What would you discover if you looked at your reflection? Would you discover the different generations that are encoded in your nose, your eyes, your forehead? Would you see specific memories etched into your scars? What stories or silly moments would your smile lines tell? What would happen if you let your childlike curiosity take over, if you observed without judgment?
In The Face Ozeki writes, “My face is and isn’t me. It’s a nice face. It has lots of people in it. My parents, my grandparents, and their grandparents, all the way back through time and countless generations to my earliest ancestors—all those iterations are here in my face, along with all the people who’ve ever looked at me. And the light and shadows are here, too, the joys, anxieties, griefs, vanities and laughter. The sun, the rain, the wind, the broom poles, and the iron fences that have distressed my face with lines and scars and creases—all here.”
What would happen if you stared at your face for longer than 5 or 15 minutes? What would you discover if you looked into your eyes? What people, memories, stories, emotions would be present?
Your face is and isn’t you.
Ozeki was inspired to try her experiment by Harvard professor Jennifer L. Roberts, who asks students to stare at a single work of art for 3 hours and record their observations, thoughts, questions. Because Roberts doesn’t simply want her students to look at art. As Ozeki writes, she wants them to see it.
What if you started seeing yourself?