The Detour Room

before the finished thought

Looking at My Face

[These reflections were written in bullet points several years ago, after seeing semi-professional photographs of myself at a LARP. Warning for non-sexual nudity in one of the pictures - maybe don't read if you're at work!]

There's a very particular feeling that comes with going through a Facebook album bracing yourself to see your own face. I flicked through these pictures, looking for myself, holding my body like I was in the passenger seat of a car about to crash.

People say I look good, but I cannot ignore the evidence of my eyes and my opinion. The reassurance just glances off - it feels superficial, somehow. Like it’s addressing a different problem to the one I actually have.

In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud writes about why cartoon characters with simple designs are so popular. Your mental image of others is detailed; your mental image of yourself is fuzzy and indistinct.

When two people interract, they usually look directly AT one another, seeing their partner's features in VIVID DETAIL. Each one ALSO sustains a constant awareness of his or her OWN face, but THIS mind-picture is not nearly so vivid; just a sketchy arrangement... a sense of shape... a sense of GENERAL PLACEMENT.


What I am experiencing is the shock of me-and-not-me. The person in these photographs is wearing my clothing and my face but it is not me. It Does Not Fit the way I picture myself in my mind.

…Is this how people see me?

In an interview for the Paris Review, poet Franny Choi writes:

‘I think it’s a labor to remind myself that I have a body, but to everybody else, my body walks into the room before I do. Or before whatever I consider the rest of me. People see me as a 5’3” Asian woman before they know anything about what I call myself in my poems—usually. Given that this image of myself precedes me, what do I do with that body that’s walked into the room, that’s walked into the room of people’s minds? I think that question is an interesting one. It could be a trap, but it could also be a chance to play.’

At least in Choi’s scenario, you’re walking. This version of me, this person in the pictures, they’re caught. On film, on Facebook’s flat and punishing interface, on a two-dimensional plane. A fly in digital amber, held in pixels and glass.

A photograph is a record of time and place - a memory. Memory is a mirror, an echo, a reflection on the surface of a pool. You can’t look without casting a shadow. How sad I look in these pictures. How static I look, compared to the dramatic fighting shots that many of my friends appear in.

One of my coworkers once told me about her experience of doing a personal colour analysis - the trendy kind. You sit in front of a mirror and they hold up different colours around your face, to figure out what you should wear. She talked about it like it had been an ordeal, having to sit so still and look at her face for so long.

A screenshot of a YouTube video by Safiya Nygaard. She looks down and to the left as somebody behind her holds a piece of cloth with lots of different coloured stripes below her face. Their face is not visible.

A.E. Beverley writes in her essay for Radical Art Review about the history of stiletto heels and stiletto knives:

‘When women wear stilettos, with their name that inevitably connotes violence, their beauty’s enhanced for greater visual effect. As the heel’s blade thrusts upward, hip bones tilt forward and shoulders slide back, raising the breasts. The female body resembles itself during a state of arousal, but with a preternatural alertness – calves are taught like you’re running, the abdomen’s long and tight, like you’re bracing for a punch. In stilettos, a woman appears active, while she’s absolutely immobilised.’

Appearance on the outside versus experience from within. Western society’s post-Enlightenment hangover runs on a series of associative hierarchies: technological = rational = objective = masculine = good; bodily = irrational = subjective = feminine = bad. My body can be understood in multiple ways. It’s a thing that can be captured and measured by a lens, sure - but it’s also the vessel in which I move through the world. Why must I hold one knowledge as more real than the other?

In a 1996 paper for Current Anthropology, LeRoy McDermott argues that the warped forms and unrealistic proportions of upper paleolithic female figurines can be explained by the fact that they are, effectively, self-portraits:

‘Before representational art or mirrors, there were only two sources of visual information about human appearance - either one’s own body or that of another human being. At the beginning of art history there would have been no a priori reason to choose one source over the other.’ (p.227-228)

A comparison of a woman's view of her breasts and stomach with a neolithic sculpture. They look strikingly similar. A caption at the bottom reads: Fig. 6.: Oblique aeriel views of front body surfaces. Top, 30-year-old Caucasian female, four months pregnant; bottom, same view of figurine from Lespugue (cast).

I look at these pictures and I am confronted with my body as it is viewed from the outside, held in a camera lens, and mediated through technology. But there are other ways - of seeing, knowing, and being. This is my body. I do not love it, not yet. I will still look at pictures where I look 'bad' and feel crestfallen, but sooner or later I will forget. I will go swimming in the sea, and eat oranges, and make love.