WHO DEFINES ME
(Cont’d from blog “Who Defines Me”)
It was shortly after I returned from my para-medical make-up studies with Marvin Westmore, founder and director of the Westmore Academy of Cosmetic Arts in Los Angeles, that I had an opportunity to speak at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Hospital Burn Unit on my new specialty, corrective (or para-medical) make-up. I offered demonstrations of para-medical make-up techniques for camouflaging scars and discolorations and creating an illusion of normality to those burn survivors who were in recovery. Through my continued association with the burn unit and my friendship with the director of the self-help group, (who was herself a burn survivor), I began to learn about the importance of the “self-image” or how we see ourselves. I began to grasp the difference between our self-image and that of our “reflective image” or how we look to others. It was the magnitude of difference between those two images that opened up a whole new way of thinking in regards to beauty, for me.
It became evident that how we saw ourselves was more crucial to our effectiveness in the world than how others saw us. While how we appear to others had an impact on our effectiveness, it was not as primary a concern as how we saw ourselves.
As I was increasingly involved with men and women who had suffered facial deformities through trauma I became aware of a self they were projecting that defined them more than anything physical. In essence I was seeing a projected self. Each time I spoke at the burn unit I wore make-up. While I was seeing beyond their scars, I wondered if these same people could see past my make-up and see me. What and who was I projecting? I so much wanted to learn the value of one’s own self-image because no fire, no accident and no amount of make-up could change the assuredness and confidence that these people projected. I wanted to learn to accept the reality of the self and project it with dignity, health, and purposefulness, first and foremost—and yes, the outer trappings secondarily. It was at this time in my career as an aesthetician that the beauty business changed for me.
Many of the men and women I came to know over the weeks that I worked at the Burn Unit had gone beyond the confusion created by disfigurement and loss of identity. I’m sure there was anguish and anger over the changes they were forced to endure. Most assuredly, they experienced tremendous emotional pain in that they could no longer recognize their face as it had been. But the self, the deepest part of their being did survive and those survivors were normal in every sense of the word.
I was working with plastic surgeons at the time, also. They would refer their patients to me when surgery was not a suitable option. While there were some who had been traumatized there were many who had para-medical make-up needs due to surgery which had been voluntary and medically unnecessary. I was using my art to camouflage temporary discoloration from face-lifts, blepharoplasties and other cosmetic procedures, which while temporary, were restricting the patient from being seen in public. I also offered women who had gone through the discomfort and cost of a face-lift or other procedure an up-date on her make-up so that she could maximize on her reconstruction.
There were, unfortunately, a number of women who had entered voluntary cosmetic surgery who had experienced not only discomfort but disaster. Error during the surgical procedure, the healing process of the patient, or patient’s carelessness left the woman with permanent, disfiguring scars. These women too came to me to learn how to hide their scars.
I have seen many cases of facial disfigurement due to illness, accident and genetic endowment. Some were beyond repair. I have also seen the desperation behind disfigurement. Through deep concern for human suffering and through great dedication, physicians have developed surgical procedures and techniques for reconstruction of deformities.
Many women however, view the process of aging as a deformity—as something “not normal”. That aging is something that needs to be fixed through surgery, that it is not normal, is a result of social attitudes that need to be explored. Simply put, today society does not consider it acceptable for a woman to allow herself to age physically and visibly, or to express her age in society.
This is a tragedy. In the following pages the reader will explore the myths and beliefs that have perpetuated the struggle for eternal youth in our culture. The reader will explore the development of self-esteem and positive, acceptable aging, indeed aging as a triumph.
The experience of others
Whether or not women work outside the home they do not want to be seen at their worst at any time, any where. That is why they came to see me. Statistically, about 45% were single and 55% were married; 45% had grown children, 30% had small children, 15% had no children, and 5 % were well on their way to the chaotic joy of starting a family. Although a growing number of men are taking an interest in having a well-cared for appearance, the majority of my salon clients were women and the most popular service was the facial treatment.
Some of these women entered the 2nd trimester of their lives as if they just walked around the corner and found themselves on Fifth Avenue, an avenue lined with boutiques of opportunity, excitement and choices, and with plenty of experience in their pockets. These women are enthusiastic about life’s Main Street and gave personal attention to their own well-being in order to be fully prepared to explore their options. Though not necessarily beautiful, slim, wealthy or of genius IQ, they did exude a sense of wellness abut themselves and the situations they were creating. These were not the people who are taking desperate measures to hold on to fickle youth.
Patricia had been referred to me by a physician in order that I might instruct her in camouflage make-up techniques. She brought with her a picture of what she had looked like in 1966. She had been in show business—used to being in spotlight. Her decision to have silicone injections in her cheeks and breasts was reached after a previous decision had been made that her aging was not acceptable.
In 1969 Patricia (not her real name) underwent silicone injections. In 1980 her world exploded. Some years after the original treatment the skin on her cheeks became gangrenous, and a skin graft was necessary to replace the dead tissue on her face. The surgery resulted in a partial paralysis on the right side of her face such that she could no longer open and close her eye. Further surgery was done to facilitate the use of her eyelid, resulting in the removal of her eyebrow. The scars where the grafting had been done on both of her cheeks keloided, which means they became raised by about.5 cm and remained a reddish-blue. Each scar was approximately two inches long. The skin on her breasts also became weakened and thinned due to the inadequate supply of blood to the tissue. One day, in the midst of all the problems she was having with her face, she fell, landing with a sudden impact on her back. The skin of her breasts, weakened and thin, literally just gave, and within a moment she did not have the remotest semblance of breasts. Instead she had claw-like scars on her chest. Patricia’s deformity was a result of her surgery and the decision she made to fix the effects of time on her body. No one will see Patricia’s face, because she no longer goes out of the house. Sun glasses and a large scarf hid the pain, and for Patricia, there was no amount of make-up or professional skill that would return her to society. If she had any spirit prior to this tragedy, it, along with an acceptable, aging face was totally gone.
None of the physicians had looked deeply enough into Patricia’s psyche to see where the problem lay and where the real work was needed. It wasn’t her face; her face was fine. It was her sense of self-worth, the disproportionate value she place on her face. Patricia was fortunate to have the skill of her last surgeon who was able to repair some of the damage before sending her to me. The job of the plastic surgeon is to fix faces, not souls and there are some surgeons who are highly trained, dedicated and compassionate who have gone beyond the skill and helped their patients cope with trauma such as Patricia’s. However, she justifiably assumed that her original physical would exercise skill, training and judgment. In that respect, Patricia was victimized. In another sense, she was responsible for her decision. Patricia bought into the attitudes of society and the pressures created by fear, which encourage and support eternal youth. That night after work I ate dinner at a local restaurant, not wanting to talk to anyone and not wanting to be alone either. As I sat by myself at my table an elderly woman entered the restaurant and was standing by the Hostess’s station happily it appeared, chatting with some younger friends. She was about 75, white haired, not particularly slim, wearing a stylish grey suit and what I called then, sensible shoes. She was beautiful, I cried.
Not all the physician-referred clients who came to my studio had suffered as severe trauma as did Patricia. Susan’s experience was relatively mild compared to many. Yet I include her story because of something she said to me.
I remember the first time I saw this young woman. She came to my salon for hair styling. At that time I was the owner of a total care beauty salon employing 13 stylists and manicurists and I was often too busy to pay attention to each client. However, I noticed Susan, as she was very tall, thin and very, very pretty. My immediate impression was that Susan possessed confidence and had her pretty self completely in order. I now ask myself, how is it that the human ego is so very frail? As beautiful as Susan was, she was easily destroyed by criticism—particularly that of her husband, who disparaging remarks hurt her deeply. She spoke of her marriage as a constant contest to be the thinnest, most beautiful woman to cross her husband’s daily path.
What was startling to me was a conversation I had with Susan in the local library one day. I was checking out some books on aging when Susan approached me to say hello. After she noticed my reading material on aging, our conversation turned to that subject. Perhaps moved by what I was saying, Susan confided in me that she had recently had a bleparoplasty, the result of which was, according to her, a disaster. Susan had anticipated that this surgery would provide a lift for her general appearance and give her the look of having just returned from a vacation. She had expected friends to say, “How rested you look.” Unfortunately, the feedback was more negative. What she heard was, “Are you feeling well?” “You look tired.” The problem, upon closer examination, I noticed that her lower eyelids were pulled slightly downward. She did look tired and I understood why. But most important to me was her comment on the decision to undergo surgery. She said, “I’ve learned a lot about myself, and will never do anything so desperate to my body again.”
June came to me for a make-over. She was terribly shy; if I had to color her in a crayon book, I’d have chosen the color gray. Her immediate problem was vitaligo, a loss of skin pigmentation that creates patches of while, albino-type skin on otherwise normal skin tone. Much of the discoloration was on her face and neck.
The problem in June’s case stemmed not from the ravages of time, but from the actual result of a disfiguring disease. At that time there was no completely safe practical treatment for this disease. It was June’s belief that if we could camouflage her vitaligo, people would actually like her better. She said to me several times during our first session that the only thing people saw when she talked to them was her funny colors. Her poor relationship with her husband further reinforced her belief that she was plain and unattractive.
My job was to make her visible more attractive. Once that was accomplished she unfortunately felt m ore “exposed” than attractive…a frightening feeling to a persona like June who wants to hide out. For several visits we continued to work on her appearance, which gave me ample opportunity to impress upon her that, after she had done her very best with her appearance, she was free to let it all go and jut be. That’s all, just be, and trust that people want to be around you for what you say and offer and for the way you make others feel important too.
Aside from learning how to apply m make-up correctly, June’s other lesson was how to take the emphasis off her vitaligo and put it on her total self. She has a long way to go, but every time June comes into the studio she delights me; she has so much potential, and its beginning to show. June thought, as many do, that being 52 means being over the hill, on the losing side of the game of life, facing illness and loss of strength. I enjoy watching her go beyond her perceived limitations and exploring her potentials. She now drives her car, spends time with friends in the evening and has started a part-time job she loves.
I received a call from a woman one afternoon. Her voice was small and uncomfortable with itself. I evaluate a client more by their voice than by the words used because so often what is said is not what is being felt. Her problem was two fold: She seemed to allow herself to be a victim of a cosmetic surgical procedure as well as to allow herself to be a victim of social expectations and judgments that completely overwhelmed her. She seemed to be desperate and lost in an attempt to undo damage suffered by a dermabrasion (procedure used to erase fine lines.) and the social complications that came along with it.
When I met her, I discovered that my appraisal had been accurate. What had occurred to this lady was a dermabrasion of her upper lip and chin area that simply would not heal. She was left with painful sores, irritation and discoloration.
The skin’s ability to heal properly was due to x-ray treatments that had been performed in her youth for acne. Cells damaged by x-rays do not repair in the same way that healthy, normal cells do. Had the physician questioned her about this point, he might not have performed the dermabrasion.
It has been a year since this woman has been able to face the public. She has completely avoided the church community that was a vital part of her life, because the philosophy of that church does not support, at, unnatural efforts to affect the appearance, including make-up! Had the physician further questioned her, he would have realized that this procedure was contrary to her belief system, and that she was going against the grain of her own values. She also had not considered something could possibly go wrong with her surgical procedure. I was not able to approach my client upon her first visit with make-up. She communicated her frustration and disappointment and indicated that she wanted make-up to camouflage the discoloration, but she clearly was not ready to take on another change, even if it was the correction of the original problem. She left my office without any make-up instruction.
Upon her second visit, she allowed me to do a make-up application, which I did very subtly and naturally, using a technique to softly emphasize her eyes, thus drawing attention away from the lower portion of her face. I used camouflage on her chin and upper lip to cover the discoloration.
Although I achieved about 85% coverage, my client saw right past the make-up and still felt obviously disfigured. We had a third visit, by which time she felt quite comfortable with me and I with her. We were able to talk more openly about her attitude. I explained that, with time, the visible scars would become less noticeable, and that she had to realize that the scars, as they were at the moment were more obvious to her than they were to anyone else.
It was at this point that I realized that her real fear stemmed from the threat to her dignity from her scars as well as from her perception of what her aging would bring to her life. The consequences of her action, the dermabrasion, were far more devastating than the original situation—aging. She had suffered isolation humiliation and exposure over the preceding year. So, in retrospect, the problem was not the lines around her mouth, but her attitudes about aging…that somehow, aging meant a loss of dignity. I recall the expression, “If you can’t change the situation, change your attitude.” Unfortunately, she tried to change the situation.
Age is not a deformity to be corrected at great risk. Ann expressed her attitude toward aging nicely.
“The first time I looked in the mirror and realized, almost all at once, that I was showing signs of aging, I experienced sudden anxiety. I thought of have a facelift at that time. Shortly thereafter, I came to grips with the notion that aging lines were not ugly. They were, indeed the lines of my journey.”
Ann goes on to explain how she feels about cosmetic surgery. “When I listen to women of my acquaintance talk about their facelifts, it seems to me as though they are describing the purchase of a new car of jewelry or bone china. The drop their doctor’s name as if he is a celebrity, their personal interior decoration (or exterior) that they intimately know. Moreover, when I look at the face, it has lost expression and no longer tells their story.
Ann is a charming woman of about 55. She works outside the home, travels, takes excellent care of herself and has an active social life
How we see ourselves is more crucial to our effectiveness in the world than how others see us. If we see ourselves a valuable and viable we will present that authentically. Most important is developing a healthy self image.
Some women have either lost or simply never found their most valuable resource…their personal power. Although I enjoy being with women who use their power with care and compassion I feel close to women who are still searching for it, to gain it, to rediscover it. Some women entering their 40’s say to me, “If I upset the status quo in my marriage, my job, am I too old to create another? For these women, even cosmetic surgery is not an option. Remaining silent and hidden is safer. Too old really means unattractive, unimportant and unprepared to create change.