Snow White Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Laughter, pleasure, malice, and the pursuit of adult fun

Worse Than Hating Your Body: Hating Your Face

When you hate what you see when you face yourself, the scars are deep.

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 example?

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

Gina Barreca, Ph.D., is Professor of English at UConn, and author of It's Not That I'm Bitter: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World.

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