Take a good look at my face

Weekly Writing Challenge: DNA Analysis

Your challenge is to take something intensely personal — the bits and pieces that make you YOU — and use them as a springboard for a post that makes a larger point and resonates with lots of other readers.

Ok, so – what makes me, me?

Ugh! As soon as I ask myself that question I want to stop right there.

When I read the Daily Post’s take on this prompt, it seemed challenging and interesting, but now that I’ve set myself the challenge, and am staring at myself, metaphorically (and literally – at the photo I just took on my phone) it feels horribly cringey. It’s like the kind of excercise in navel-gazing that we did at high school in Year 11 Religious Education classes at the Catholic School I went to.

Why do I suddenly find it so irksome? I do indeed spend time mulling over my own character, my shortcomings, and even my strengths, but this challenge asks me to make a massive leap – from mulling introspectively, to reviewing my character traits on the internet. I am not quite ready for that!

The other approach, as suggested by the Daily Post, is to analyse the physical attributes I’ve been handed down from previous generations. That’s hard too: for those of us living in Western, First World countries, our sense of self identify is shaped, to varying degrees, around our physical appearance. For women in particular, this is overtly effected by the very high proportion of the women we see on TV, in the media, in ads, and in movies. These are invariably the thinnest and most attractive specimens available for the salary on offer.

I’m adequately aware of the game that is being played, and rationally, I know it’s not true that because I don’t look like a Hollywood movie star, I am not a worthwhile person – yet despite all of that, I have internalised a standard that I measure my own appearance against and the verdict always screams, “horribly imperfect!

So it’s difficult to write honestly about my sub-par appearance.

I prefer not to look at photos of myself in social situations. It’s almost guaranteed to bring down my mood. Just last night I was celebrating with work colleagues after the end of 3 weeks of hard work at a festival, and some people started taking photos on their phones. Like everyone else, I was high from exhaustion combined with relief and champagne. I was in a pretty good mood, so I happily joined in on posing for photos – but when phones were passed around for photo viewing, I passed them on without looking. No need to be brought down to earth with a jolt.

I realise this response is ridiculous. Isn’t that vanity about my own appearance causing me to overlook the spirit of the occasion? For another thing, there is nothing seriously wrong with my physical appearance, except that high internal standard, against which, I come off about a gazillion miles short.

My features come together to make a face that I sometimes find acceptable in the mirror, but in photos it’s always caught in an unchecked moment – whether smiling, laughing, talking, or staring at a camera, in my biased opinion, it suffers greatly when I’m not able to construct my features into something that I deem acceptable. I may be laughing, but all I see is an extra chin, or that my face looks as round as a basketball. I may be smiling, but I just focus on the fact that I’ve been caught in a half-blink and look crazy. I’m caught on a side profile and that, of course, serves to highlight my turned-up nose. My hair is never satisfactory. The whole picture is never satisfactory.

But now, I’m alone, looking at the photo of myself I just took on my phone, staring back at myself. I have no makeup on, and the first thing that strikes me is that I look tired, and older than I usually care to acknowledge. The furrow in the middle of my forehead stands out, making it look like I frown easily. Well, I probably do.

I probably learned to frown a lot from a young age. My parents were unusually strict and repressive when I was a child, and they had 6 children, which meant a steady stream of naughtiness, and it was probably a daily occurence for one of us to be in trouble and for me to witness angry parental raised voices and frowning. In my memory, they frowned quite a lot. I suspect that, in turn, I frowned a lot too, as a symptom of living in that environment.

As I’ve grown older that furrow has probably deepened – staring at it now, I’m reminded of some of the characteristics I inherited from my father. One of those is impatience, particularly with people who are slow-witted or incompetent. Another is contempt for people who are arrogant, hypocritical, or who work the system. There are a few people I encounter at work that probably cause that furrow to deepen gradually.

My face is a mixture of the heritage of mostly Irish ancestors, and probably before them, Nordic ancestors. No family trees go back far enough to know for sure, but I surmise that my ancestors must have travelled by boat to Ireland from Scandanavia because, unfortunately (see what I did there?) I don’t have the complexion of Snow White – the clear pale skin and dark hair typically thought of as Irish. I do have pale skin – but it burns red and freckles, and my hair and eyelashes are honey-blonde, or “ginger”, depending how kind you feel. To give you a pretty clear idea, one of my brothers, whose colouring is very similar to mine, used to be nicknamed Boris Becker when he was young, because his physical appearance, right down to blonde eyelashes and eyebrows, were very similar to those of the German Tennis player.

Boris "Boom Boom" Becker in the mid to late 80s. Doppelganger for my brother.

Boris “Boom Boom” Becker in the mid to late 80s. Doppelganger of my brother back then, even right down to the 80s haircut. Pic: http://www.telegraph.co.uk

Looking at the photo I’ve taken of myself tonight, I see a resemblance to my grandmother, that is, the grandmother I have photos of. Dad’s mother died when he was only 12 years old, so I never met her, and there are only a few, stilted, black and white photos of her. Mum’s mother died when I was 18, so I have photos and vague memories of her. When I see myself smiling in photos, I’m often reminded of my mother and her oldest brother. It’s an ambivalent recognition – I”m not impressed that when laughing, my face looks as wide and artless as theirs (we fit the cliche “grinning from ear to ear”) but on the other hand, I do take pleasure in recognising in my own face the same mischievous enjoyment of a good joke that I see in their broadly grinning faces.

Humour is a quality I’m grateful to both my parents for passing on. Mum and her family love British comedies that combine deadpan delivery with slapstick and absurdity. My mother herself is absent-minded to the point of being eccentric, so it is almost as if she has become one of the characters in the slapstick comedies she adores. (For example, she will put a slice of apple pie and a scoop of icecream into a bowl and then ask me if I’d like it heated in the microwave.) Dad loves any kind of joke, and the rest of us can thank him for our quick, dry wit, so invariably someone in the family can fire off a witty response to mum’s absent-minded remark, causing everyone, including Mum, to dissolve into laughter.

In the photo I’ve taken of myself tonight, I can’t see any evidence of those positive traits – in it I am not smiling and mostly I just look tired. It’s definitely not a “satisfactory” image of myself and I’ll be deleting it after I’ve written this post.

But as I get older, I think I am becoming a little kinder to myself. I’m not always dismayed by reflection in the mirror, even though it’s getting older – and sometimes – yes, believe it or not, occasionally when I look at a photo of myself, I see past the laughing-double-chin or the side-profile-nose, and recognise Mum’s shy mischievousness, or Dad’s twinkling, dry-humoured eyes, and when I do, I feel that photo has captured some part of me that I like, and that makes me smile.

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    • Thank you. I had a look at your blog, particularly liked the piece about Lebanon – you are right that it is not usually written about as a tourist destination – I’ve never seen a travel piece about Lebanon before and it did look beautiful!


      • Thankyou. It is a country that is not considered very often. Although i haven’t been there just yet i can’t wait to go! Make sure you add it to your bucket list because from what i have heard and know; you must visit Lebanon and be sure to spread the beautiful word about it; because it is such a beautiful place, so much to offer though not many people know enough about it.


  1. I don’t believe in coincidences. Even less when I read your post exactly one year after you wrote it.
    The thing is that your dissertation is one I’ve been having in my mind this whole year.
    Physical appearances and all their implications have been an issue I’ve struggled with lately and reading you about it makes me feel not alone.
    It’s been long since I worried about my looks but it seems that lately I’ve being surrounded by people who do and picture taking for Facebook posts isn’t helping eider.
    Reading you makes me realize this is an issue and I’m not alone.
    I guess I’ll write about it too.
    Thank you.


    • Facebook is an interesting addition to any discussion about our focus on appearance. Now that we are all on FB, a lot of people seem to post photos of themselves almost daily. Some kids, I think, must learn to expect that their parents are going to post a photo of them posing in the middle of some activity, almost daily. I find that problematic, that a whole generation of kids will think it’s routine to stop and pose for a photo that will be broadcast to 100s of people, every day. On the other hand, perhaps there is also a good side to all these photos on FB in that we get to see a lot of photos of ordinary people who haven’t had stylists prepare them for their photo.

      In any case I think that angst about appearance is a very common issue and you are certainly not alone!



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