Toronto
4 min

Face time

Apple cider vinegar, baking soda, sweet almond oil, tea tree, rubbing alcohol, rosewater, sea salt and lime juice. This is not a secret recipe for incredible salad dressing, a cross-border grocery list or a list of bands from NXNE. These are actual items that I have, at some point over the last 15 years, used as facial treatments. My relationship until now with my primary window to the world has been tumultuous, to say the least.

New Year’s resolutions in mind, I think 2011 is the year to make friends, or at least stop making enemies, with my own untouchable face.

I have struggled with my complexion for as long as I have struggled with my gender expression. Coincidence? I think not. Obviously, my hormones are all over the place. I have a list of drugs, including the vilified Accutane, as long as my arm that I have used at various points to try to control my acne. When I was a teenager, I took some comfort in the fact that everyone said I would grow out of it as an adult and that my oily, olive skin would one day spare me wrinkles and make me beautiful. Now 31, I have given up on that hope and have resorted to trying anything that might help take the zits away. I wake up every morning, feel around and then check the mirror for new ones, pretty much always find one, and the vicious cycle continues.

My face and I have been through a lot, even apart from the acne circus — self-harm, shaving, waxing, electrolysis, thermolysis, allergic reactions, glasses and contacts, a series of facial piercings and a series of infections, a corneal ulcer. My face and I have been through wars with each other, me always trying to change her, fix her, mould her into someone else; and her just trying to survive, reproduce cells, brave the external and internal elements that take their toll, and take her further and further away from safety.

My expression is a big part of my face, and I do tend to frown a lot, although I don’t usually think about it. Sometimes I will catch my expression in a bus window or the shiny screen of my cellphone and realize I have become habituated to a serious expression. Andrea and my mother — both of whom, I suppose, have been blessed with witnessing the worst of my moods — say I “furrow.” I remember my mom saying throughout my high school years, “Would it kill you to smile? Is your life that bad?” But hey, that’s what depression looks like.

I have a chicken pox scar that won’t fade and electrolysis scars that will. I am in the process of coming off a couple of mental-health medications — another risky New Year’s resolution — that I think changed my face in a series of subtle ways. There’s something about the structure of it, the lines and valleys, that looks different. I can’t prove it or pinpoint it, but my doctor says it is definitely possible, whether because of the meds or the consequent hormone changes.

I have what fashion critics call slut eyebrows. They are the only part of my face that is decidedly feminine, arched and plucked and trimmed regularly. “The difference between a film star and a stripper is as thin as a hair,” I once read in a Berlin magazine.

Every once in a while, I am complimented on my eyebrows, and I cling to those moments as a sort of strange and solid affirmation that I am indeed a woman in some small identifiable way. They were one of the first features Andrea noticed about me, and I carry some nostalgia about them, which seems silly, but nostalgia is, more often than not, silly.

My face carries every sign of stress, every minute of worry, my eating habits and sleeping habits and the success of my spiritual path. I have a big, wide smile that has grown tighter, slower and more hesitant when I am not with my daughter. I am almost never out in public — or even at home by myself — and not expending some percentage of my energy on doing a mental examination of my face, and lecturing myself on how it does not measure up, how it would be hotter, sexier, more striking if it were just thinner, clearer or someone else’s.

I am studying the theory of habituation, the basic idea that the things that you do make you more likely to do them again. So if you say a mean word, you are strengthening the habit of meanness, making it easier to be mean next time — it’s like a mental “favourites” list. So how am I strengthening the habit of being self-critical? By saying the same things to myself every time I catch a glimpse in a mirror, every two out of 10 minutes the thought flashes by that there is something wrong with my face or my body or my brain. And the only way to change it is to stop doing it. Just stop doing it, settle into that empty space of not doing something, and then slowly replace it with doing something else, something more productive, more positive and more in line with where I want to be.

Nina Arsenault showed me at Buddies recently that knowing your face in explicit detail — whether it’s the one you were born with or the one you created — can be a key to knowing what is behind that face — your thoughts, emotions, moods, reactions and personality. This year I am going to try not just to stop criticizing my face, but to start seeing it as a doorway to be loved, accepted and overshadowed by what is inside, what doesn’t age, get zits or keep chasing a ridiculous fantasy of beautiful.

Street Smarts appears in every second issue of  Xtra.