FASCINATION.

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I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll be happy to make an exception.

— Groucho Marx

SIFTING THROUGH OLD FAMILY videos, I found a tape with a worn label that read: PRIVATE, SIRI’S TAPE! I popped it in the VCR to find a girl with my eyes and severe acne staring soulfully back at me. Her lips twitched as she forced them to meet over her braces, but as the music cued, her eyes drooped and her mouth relaxed. Her pupils were steady through her blonde lashes as she crooned: Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone. Suzanne the plans they made put an end to you. She warmed up with each verse, and soon the thin rubber bands designed to hold her jaw in place were pulled dangerously taut. I got nervous, unable to remember what had happened the first time around. Did the bands snap? Did it hurt? The tension was a sour companion to the James Taylor song. I felt bad for this ugly kid.

And then it sunk in: This is me. This is the person who woke up in my bed this morning, who got drunk last night, who had to wait for her roommate to shower before she could pee.

But what makes me this girl?

I heard somewhere that our cells regenerate completely every seven years — that means mine have cycled through almost twice since this terrifying video. Somehow, it’s still not a comfortable distance. She stared at me, sang to me, forcing me to confront the truth. We have the same memories, our cells organize themselves according to the same plan; if we have a soul, it’s the same one. I watched the video over and over, trying to look at her with new eyes, to like her more. But no matter how I tried, I couldn’t blur her into my airbrushed past. I couldn’t make her hazy enough to seem dear, cute or charming. She was what she was: Ugly, awkward, unabashed.

A friend of mine lived 16 years with terrible vision — but didn’t know it. Once his myopia was finally diagnosed, he was shocked by what his new glasses revealed: The world was ugly. His girlfriend had weird skin. His parents had creased faces. His Monet had morphed into a candid, unflattering photograph. To this day he still tries to return to his old watercolor (I often have to scold him when he drives without his glasses). It pains him to look in the mirror, yet he’s weirdly fascinated with his own disturbing countenance. He stares at himself constantly.

Robert Benchley knew this kind of masochistic obsession well. In the essay My Face he wrote:

Merely as an observer of natural phenomena, I am fascinated by my own personal appearance. This does not mean that I am pleased with it, mind you, or that I can even tolerate it. I simply have a morbid interest in it.

How many times have I puzzled over old birthday pictures or quick party shots, wondering, Do I really have an Adams apple? Is my nose that red? Have other people noticed? To see yourself for the first time is to escape yourself for the first time, to move into someone else’s shoes. But there’s always the nagging question of how accurate your assessment is.How far removed am I from my own self-awareness? We know we can never really get outside ourselves, yet every mirror offers another chance to try.

Perplexed and fascinated by our ugliness, my friend and I were doing our noble best to face disaster head on, rubbernecking a train wreck, struggling to understand the almost unfathomable. We were the antithesis of the self-adorers Francis Bacon warned about, those born with natural beauty or talent:

They commonly live a solitary, private, and shadowed life; with a small circle of chosen companions, all devoted admirers, who assent like an echo to everything they say, and entertain them with mouth-homage; till being by such habits gradually depraved and puffed up, and besotted at last with self-admiration, they fall into such sloth and listlessness that they grow utterly stupid, and lose all vigor and alacrity.

No, we would never become so amorous and thoughtless. We would not grow lazy, or content, or stupid.

I guess we were lucky.

And there really are upsides to being ugly. If that 13-year-old on the tape had looked like Britney Spears, I would have cringed at her — at my uncrushed zeal. I wouldn’t have rooted for her. I’d have wished someone would smack her. But ugliness elicits pity. When an ugly person pipes up, people cup their ears and lean in, as if to prove I’m a nice person and I’m interested in hearing you. By contrast, a hottie’s voice can fall on deaf ears — unless someone in the room wants to get them in bed.

Ugliness often goes hand in hand with smarts. Cauliflower, for example, looks like a nasty skin growth and smells like a toilet — but the chemicals in it make messages travel through your brain faster. Most natural geniuses are not lookers. What kind of icon would Einstein be if his hair were smooth and flat? Ugliness can even be enough to convince people that you’re a genius even if you are not. Look at Andy Warhol, renowned for mass-producing product labels (easy to copy!) — and he didn’t even do the work himself. What convinced everyone to revere him? His ugly hair and bad skin.(He must get his confidence from somewhere, and it obviously isn’t from his looks — maybe Warhol is a genius!) Were he not so weird-looking, we’d have forgotten about him by now. So three cheers for the ugly stick — for making people famous, for making people smart, for making people live in the real world.

I’ve stopped watching my video. Like trying in vain to smell my own bad breath, I’ve grown numb to the girl on the screen. I can’t find my flaws, because I’ve scrutinized every freckle and zit into nonexistence. Still, I hope others will take up the cause. If we ever meet, dear reader, will you view me with fresh innocence and treat me with the reverence only the truly ugly deserve? I promise to find the little ugly in you, too.

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siri steiner is a science writer for hire.