In real life, I have a job that requires showing my face, instead of hiding behind a damsel-in-distress gravatar. It also requires a bit of marketing, so I recently decided to build a web site to promote my business. To go along with my new web site, I needed new pictures, so I hired a friend to take some.
As a favor, she told me to pick my favorite shot, and she would photoshop it for free. How exciting and glamorous, I thought! I had never been photoshopped! So I pored over the 100 or so photos, some with my arms crossed in an I'm-in-charge way, some close-up in an I'm-approachable way. I chose one where I managed to look in charge and approachable at the same time.
As I scrutinized the photo in which I looked terrific, pre-scrutiny, I started to notice little imperfections. Little imperfections that, the more I stared at them, the more they started to look like big, OMG-how-did-I-not-see-that-before disfigurements.
An odd bald patch in one of my eyebrows! Bizarrely long dimples creeping up half my face! Lines on my forehead! Yellow-tinged teeth! Crinkles at the corners of my eyes! Cartilage in my nose that veered slightly to the left!
How long had I been walking around like this, I wondered? All middle-aged and askew? A week ago, in the supermarket, next to the arugula, when I ran into an acquaintance I had not seen in years, and she exclaimed, as women do, "you look great!" -- had she really meant it? Or was she actually surveying the glaring signs of age on my face and trying to make me feel better?
This photo was proof that I had profoundly overestimated my appeal. So I asked my friend to work her photoshop magic on my crevice-like lines, and yellow teeth, and one weird eyebrow.
A week later she sent me the photoshopped picture. It was a gorgeous photo of a fabulous-looking woman.
An unnaturally fabulous-looking woman.
One with gleaming white Chiclet teeth, warm, glowy skin, a perfectly straight nose, and an artful smudge of smoky eyeshadow.
This woman resembled me, sort of. But better. Yet also weird in her betterness, like a fembot. I didn't know what to make of it. So I asked Atticus what he thought.
"It doesn't look like a real person," he said. "Use the other one, the one that actually looks like you."
I stared at the two photos side by side on my computer screen. I didn't know if I liked the real me anymore. She looked so dull, so full of pores, next to her shimmering counterpart.
I needed more opinions. So I e-mailed the photo to a slew of friends, both personal and professional, and asked them to weigh in.
The responses were all over the place. Some told me I was beautiful the way I was. Some told me the "real me" looked too washed out and the after photo warmed me up. Some told me the photoshopped picture looked like a wax figure. Some told me prospective clients would gravitate to a woman who looked impeccable. Some told me prospective clients wouldn't go near a woman who looked too impeccable.
When Ashley Judd wrote her articulate smackdown to the media snarks who turned her "puffy face" into headline news, she railed against the patriarchy's reduction of women's inherent value to their physical appearance. She decried the result of this objectification on women, who, she said, have internalized the not-good-enough message and have become destructively obsessed with their faces and bodies.
I thought about my own compulsive vanity, and how it had played out over the years. Exercising myself into amenorrhea in college. Dyeing, highlighting, lowlighting, and flat-ironing my hair. Fretting if my abdomen appears bloated. Overspending at the beauty supply store.
And always, the niggling if-I-just-hads, the addictive thoughts that life would be better with broader cheekbones and the absence of dark undereye circles.
In her essay, Judd says that there is actually nothing wrong with cosmetic surgery, that the real problem is women judging themselves and other women both for having wrinkles and for getting rid of them. That this whole obsession with looks is a lose-lose proposition.
When I was in my 20s, I got a nose job. My nose didn't bother anyone else, but it had driven me crazy my whole life. It had a bump, and it kind of dipped down when I smiled, and it consumed way too much mind space.
So finally I went ahead and had it fixed, despite friends and family urging me not to, because, they worried, what if I came out looking like a pekignese?
I didn't. The surgeon made some artfully subtle changes, so that my nose still looked like my nose, only better. Most people couldn't even tell it was different.
But I could. So I felt more relaxed. Because I wasn't hemorraging mental energy obsessing about it. Now, 2o years later, I often forget my nose isn't my original nose. In fact, I often forget about my nose altogether.
What my nose job really gave me, other than a slightly smaller nose, was peace of mind. At least about my nose. I still have plenty of other things to obsess about.
Which brings me back to my pictures. I ended up choosing the photoshopped one. I decided it looked more polished and professional, and so I went with it.
And you know what? It looks great on the web site. The designer shrunk it down, so the fembot-ness isn't what you see. What you see is a woman who looks like she got up that morning, did a bunch of sun salutations, then brushed her hair and teeth really well. What you see is me.
Just slightly better.