What’s in a face?

The most beautiful woman I have ever encountered, was a Romany woman in Sicily many, many years ago.

She was staying in the same campsite that my friend Louise and I had found ourselves in for the summer.

One morning we awoke to find our tent surrounded by caravans and our little space absorbed into this bustling family unit.

It was great.

Every morning we would crawl out of our tent to be greeted with wry smiles and small cups of very strong, very black and very sweet coffee.

In the evening, if we made it back in time, we were invited to join them for dinner, and in a mixture of Italian and English we would stumble merrily through a conversation on the day’s events.

One evening the mother of the group took us both aside. She had a question for us. A question that required discretion. Required being taken aside. Something serious and hushed.

Louise and I were a little worried. What had we done?

“Why is it” she asked “that we both stare so much at Guanella?”

We were baffled.

“She is nervous because you are always watching her. Is anything wrong?”

Louise and I replied as one.

“No. She’s just so beautiful!”

Relief and joy all round. From that moment on Guanella quietly acknowledged our admiration with small smiles or nods.

All was well.

It was true though. She was truly beautiful.

Not in a head turning sense. Not in a brazen, or brash fashion. But in a quiet way.

In a way that drew you to her. Forced you to watch her.

There was a languidness about her, an ease with herself that seemed to infuse her every movement.

A looseness in her arms, a gentle grace in her walk. A softness and curvaciousness that came from childbirth. A real femininity.

And that physical ease was so very much a part of her. It was a key component to her beauty.

True her face, her smile, her expressions, her laughter, her shyness were also attractive.

But it was that movement, that inner calm, that unconscious radiation that was the true mark of her beauty. The true source of its power.

Think of Margot Fontein or Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly. All exquisite faces, true. But there was the same thing in them. They also possessed that same inner grace. That smooth, languid way of moving.

Their beauty, as with Guanella’s, was more than just their face. More than just their body shape.

It was something deeper. Something within that they could somehow express outwardly. Something an observer could recognise inately and respond to.

I only mention all of this because two news stories caught my attention this week.

They both concern faces.

The first story
concerns an American woman who committed suicide after she was refused entry at the last moment to a TV “extreme makeover” programme.

The show had allegedly promised to correct her “deformed jaw, crooked teeth, droopy eyes and small chest.”

A string of operations which, they guaranteed would “transform her life and destiny”.

Such is the delicate nature of beauty, of faces, of our need to feel beautiful, accepted, wanted, desirable – perhaps even just plain “normal”.

If we don’t possess it, it can literally kill us.

And it is a desire that no longer carries with it any social taboos.

Whereas in the past people would be loathe to admit to having had any plastic surgery, today it is something to celebrate, something to aspire to, something to make TV shows about.

Our beauty has become nothing more than a commodity. It’s attainment nothing less than a social imperative.

And not to achieve it, it seems, can lead, for some, to such despair that even death is a preferable alternative.

More worrying still however, is a tendency for some patients to unconsciously objectify their own body parts. To separate themselves from, well, themselves.

Take this quote from The Guardian from September 14th. It quotes a paitent interviewed by Virginia L Blum in her book “Flesh Wounds”:

“I always looked in the mirror and thought, I want that bump out. I’ve thought, oh, I feel hideously ugly. But I’ve always thought, it’s like you have a car that has a dent in it. If you got it fixed it would be quite a nice car. So I thought, apply the same thing to your nose.”

“Notice,” Blum writes, “how her nose is both her and not her, something that makes her feel ‘hideously ugly’ at the same time that it’s as materially distinct as a car. This is what happens to your body when you start changing it surgically.” When cosmetic patients talk about their bodies, dissociation is a recurring theme, as though they no longer inhabit their own skin.”

A nose is a nose. It is not me. It is disposable. I do not identify with it – at least not enough for it to affect my sense of self.

Strange, don’t you think?

There’s a piece of you that can also not be a piece of you.

A piece of your face, that most sensitive aspect of our identity you would think, and yet still a disposable piece nonetheless.

Change my chin, my eyes, my teeth, my jaw, my nose, my breasts. Cut it and mould it. I don’t care.

I will still be me.

Only more so.

I will be beautiful and therefore I will be a happier version of myself. A better version of myself. An upgrade, if you will.

Well perhaps.

This is what we believe anyway.

And then came this, the news that doctors in the USA are getting ready to perform the world’s first face transplant.

The procedure, of course, is meant for severely disfigured people. People who require major surgical intervention.

What was interesting about this – the medical and scientific aspects aside – was the fact that the intrepid doctors were very aware of the fact that the candidates to be selected for the operation would need to be screened for psychological suitabilty, and that their post-operative care and counselling would be a serious undertaking.

This was thought to be of crucial import because the face is deemed to be such an integral part of our identity.

Dr James Partidge, who himself was severely disfigured in a car accident, summed it up quite nicely on the BBC:

“When you look at your hand, you say ‘that’s mine’, whereas the thing about the face is that when you look in the mirror you say ‘that’s me’.”

Our faces, it seems are very tied up with our identity, or that’s the suggestion.

The same article however, went on to explain that New Zealander Chris Hallam, the world’s first recipient of a hand transplant, later ensured that his new appendage had to be removed after he stopped taking the medication needed to ensure his body did not reject it .

The article doesn’t explain why Mr Hallam took this course of action but the implication seems to be that he had difficulties accepting his new hand.

Of course, Mr Hallam’s hand came from a corpse, which may have given him a sense that his hand was, quite literally, a foreign body, and the new face transplants would also be provided via the same source.

Someone will have to die and donate their face in order for it to be transplanted. Skin is an organ after all.

Nevertheless, some day, someone will wake up with such a new face and may find that they reject it. Not physically perhaps, in the sense that their immune system will reject it, but psychologically in the sense that they look at that face and think:

“Gee, that’s not me”

Much like Mr Hallam and his hand.

Which brings me back to that nose I quoted earlier.

That objectified proboscis that somehow required “augmentation”.

That was somehow “Other”

I’ve been wondering about that.

Here we have two people – a plastic surgery patient and a disfigured patient.

One seeks treatment in order to pursue beauty. The other seeks treatment in order to ameliorate a physical disfigurement.

One objectifies a body part.

The other cannot identify with his new one to such an extent that it has to be removed.


I’m beginning to conclude that the answer lies in the fact that plastic surgery, by its very nature demands such a separation from ourselves.

Demands that beauty, that ephemeral, undefinable quality be seen and worshipped as such.

As some sprite, as some wispy fleeting thing that is so intangible, so hard to grasp, that, perversely, this encourages us to treat it as spmething separate, as something “other”.

It is not us. It is not our identity. It is this thing. This delightful presence. A nymph to pursue.

And yet, as I said at the beginning of this piece, the most beautiful woman I ever encountered was none of these things.

She was so much more.

Languid, exquisite, earthy, full, eternal, mesmerising.


She took that ephemeral quality and made it real. Made it solid with every move she made.

It was within her. It was a power. It was a spirit.

It was beauty.

Real beauty.

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