He looks down at them and arranges his face. Erasmus says that you must do this each morning before you leave your house: ‘put on a mask, as it were.’ – from Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
I find this face arranging especially trying during the holidays…the parties, the extended family gatherings, the inevitable unplanned chat, while out on the shopping circuit, with that work associate you once saw daily. Uh oh, what do I want my face to say right now? Am I even able make my face reflect whatever warm greetings I feel compelled (& sometimes really do want) to offer? Or can I be honest with this one, be honest about just wanting it to be the new year already, February actually, done with the seemingly interminable “happy holidays”?
The face is our front door…it may be wide open, it may be closed, or it may be deliberately done up in the mask of the day. I used to make heroic efforts with masks & armor every time I stepped into my office, but I was never very good at it. This could be considered a disability – in that arena, it was definitely one of mine.
Facial expressions are an essential, universal aspect of human primate bonding and communication. Charles Darwin early on recognized this key element of human nature & wrote about it in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872 as his 2nd volume (right after Descent of Man) specifically addressing human evolution. If we allow it, our face reveals what’s going on in our amygdala – that deep, old, emotional part of our brain: our fear, anger, surprise, contempt, disgust, happiness, sadness, & my (apparent) favorite (just ask my family): skepticism, as demonstrated by slight but oh-so-communicative raising of one eyebrow. Ergo, our attempts at closing that door to others stem from a desire to conceal our emotional states, probably in relation to demonstrating our degree of mental control over them, or because we sense others (understandably!) don’t really want to see what’s behind that door. And while chimpanzees can to some extent control their facial expressions, only human primates seem to hold this deception as a daily objective. I did, I do still, but it’s harder to justify these days because, to be honest, I don’t need less connection with my fellow humans right now, I rather need more…can’t see those facial expressions on FB or in text messages (although, granted, sometimes I’m relived to not be able to see them).
Which brings me to that other mask that some of us (usually female) wear, a.k.a. “putting on my face”. Chalk another one up to being part of the feminist generation – I never did get into this. Now, at 60-something, I suppose I could make a small effort to hide those distracting sun-blemishes, but at this point, why bother? I do however make the daily effort to don eyebrows (!), & know from my mother (from whom I no doubt inherited these mostly invisible & scraggly things) that this does not become easier over the years. Some women dread bad-hair days, but I dread bad-eyebrow days – eyebrows being, after all, key to that (apparent) favored facial expression. Someone suggested tattooing them on, but having survived the punctures of a very small tattoo on my ankle a few years ago, it’s impossible to imagine voluntarily subjecting myself to the surreal pain of two eyebrows. No thank you. If you can’t read my face because I forgot to put on my eyebrows, you’ll just have to ask me…I promise to not shut the door on you.
Here’s to the light of the new year. May it include more joyful facial expressions, & fewer of the others.