Chin up. Chin down. Smile. Turn to the right … not that much. Look at the camera. Relax.
Poof, flash explodes. Blinded. Tense. Uncomfortable in the limelight.
One more. Come on, smile, a big one.
My photographer husband is honoring me with a professional shoot. My image on the university website, where I am a writing professor, is two decades old. It’s time to update. I need an update, in many ways. I admire my husband’s photographs—except ones of me. Even his talent can’t make me love myself on film.
My mother always believed in splurging for a good haircut, so my headshot prep is a visit to my stylist of 20 years. He always queries, a bit accusingly as he thumbs through my locks, “Don’t you ever blow dry your hair?” If I can’t look my worst when I visit a hair salon, when can I? The transformation from schlub to chic-until-the-next-shampoo is even more astounding that way. I’m completely white underneath the “single process” dye job I endure every five weeks, always rueing the time and expense, knowing I’m not fooling anyone. (Remember that ad: “only your hairdresser knows for sure”? Bullshit.)
Loving the Natural Look
I stopped wearing makeup in my 20s, proudly proclaiming it a feminist statement. My husband preferred my “natural” beauty. Decades later, on the advice of an even more ardent feminist friend, I bought a really red lipstick; she claimed women our age needed a bit of color to face the world. Yet I felt like my mother, who had increased difficulty applying lipstick in her 80s, reverting to a preschooler unable to color within the lines. Her eyeliner was always a little “off,” and eventually her heavy-handed blush application made her look like an aging clown.
“A little make up and paint makes a gal look like someone she ain’t,” she insisted.
Yet I showed up for my headshot bare-faced.
‘Is it over yet?’ I keep asking, as my husband takes more pictures.
I’ve watched my husband shoot young actors for their audition portfolios. They adore the camera, posing one expression and outfit after another as if they never have any place more urgent or fascinating to go. My husband loves shooting them, such easy subjects, claiming they “hug” the camera.
I want to flee from that black rectangle, a nasty machine that can see every mole, liver spot, and crease in my face.
“Is it over yet?” I keep asking, perched on a stool, jiggling my foot impatiently.
“It’ll make my neck look more wrinkled,” I complain, surprised at my self-conscious vanity.
“I’ll fix that,” my husband promises.
An hour later he shows me a slideshow of his final favorites on his computer. I chose one I like best. Or rather the one I don’t dislike the most.
Meeting My Photoshopped Self
“Now,” he says, “abracadabra. Just watch.”
He’s excited about his new Portrait software. Simply by sliding a white bar—like the one I use in Word when I want to enlarge text if my reading glasses aren’t nearby—he transports me back in time. In seconds I become younger … even younger still. I’m aging in reverse, like Benjamin Button.
I find myself guiltily liking my false-faced headshot.
“No! Too much! It’s not real,” I protest.
“Everyone does it,” he insists.
Easy for him to say. He’s always behind the lens. How would he feel about someone capturing his thinning hair, which he’s recently become sensitive about? Is there a hair replacement icon on Photoshop?
I finally accept an image of myself somewhere between puberty and assisted living, as if caving in on a contract negotiation. My husband is a wrinkle reducer, pimple popper, blemish eraser—all with a few clicks of his mouse. I have to admit I look pretty damn good. I draw the line at cyber-Botox lip filler.
The new me makes me feel like a fraud, but I use the photo for a panel I lead at a professional conference. I worry that everyone will be shocked when they see the real me in person. After all, I’ve been asked to deliver a lecture because of my years of experience and, hopefully, a bit of wisdom. All of which has been etched into my wrinkles.
I find myself guiltily liking my false-faced head shot. Oh to shave off ten, or twenty, years! I suddenly understand Nora Ephron’s quip: “I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year when I was 26. If anyone young is reading this, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re 34.” Yet when I first read her collection, I Feel Bad About My Neck, I was too young to relate to her concern about aging skin. Now I, too, wear scarves.
“You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to if it had a neck,” Ephron wrote.
The Facelift Factor
My mother had her first facelift when I was in high school. My father casually informed me, “Your mother’s in the hospital,” as if it were routine to spend a few days in the Manhattan Eye Ear and Throat Hospital, a fountain of youth for celebrities and aristocrats. Dad and I traveled an hour from Sheepshead Bay to East 64th Street by subway. Plastic surgery was as foreign to me as the tony streets of Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
I didn’t know what to expect when I entered her hospital room. Her head was bandaged, and I felt as frightened as if she’d survived a near-fatal car crash and suffered traumatic brain injury. Awkwardly sitting by her bed, I was angry that my parents hadn’t warned or prepared me. It was also baffling why my first-generation reformed Jewish mother, a middle-class housewife, would subject herself to “the knife” in a quest for eternal youth and beauty.
A decade earlier one of the most-renowned plastic surgeons in Manhattan had “fixed” her beak. She never liked the way it came out. I always found her turned-up nostrils too fake and Wasp-y.
My mother was trying to sculpt away her traumatic past. Her father died of tuberculosis when she was two. Her Russian immigrant mother made bootleg gin in her Jersey City railroad apartment, unable to support three children, eventually putting them all into a state-run orphanage, where Mom lived until she was a teenager.
Two facelifts never made up for the youth my mother had missed.
How did she ever convince my penurious civil-servant father to fund a nose job and surreptitious facelift? No one ever guessed she had plastic surgery. Some inquired if she’d changed her hairstyle or make-up. Her friends commented how vibrant and glistening she looked. As their faces became more lined, she smoothly stood out.
“Genetics,” she’d tell them when they asked for her skincare secrets.
She had a second facelift 20 years later. A touch-up. Mom never had the simple childhood pleasures of dinner with your family, sitting in a backyard on a breezy summer evening, riding a bike to school, having a mother comfort you when your small world crashes. Yet two facelifts never made up for the youth my mother had missed.
She was bedridden with dementia for the last two years of her life. Nellie, her live-in caretaker, stroked her cheek and said, “She’s beautiful. How does she look so young?”
“Genetics,” I replied.
The Message Hidden in My Headshot
And now my husband and I have our own secret DNA code in my new headshot, uploaded to my professional and social media platforms. I worry that my students will view my profile and then walk into my classroom the first night, shocked and deceived at the older imposter handing out a syllabus. If I make a new friend on Facebook, and we meet for lunch, will they pass by my table, not recognizing me?
None of that happens. It’s understood that we all play around with our photographic public images, the way we used to look at magazine covers before the computer age, noting each beautiful face had been “airbrushed.” Now when I look at my headshot, I feel ambivalent about yearning to appear so fresh and buoyant again. Nonetheless I wish I still had my youthful energy level and joints that don’t ache in the rain.
And what kind of message am I sending to my 24-year-old daughter? From the time she was small, I pointed out that the media images she’s barraged with are not real women. They’ve had “work done,” with and without scalpels. I repeatedly emphasized that we all must accept our bodies, secretly knowing it was unrealistic before the internet, even more so today. Especially when my husband is a masterful plastic surgeon, dermatologist, digital diet doc, and sly magician.
It’s more difficult than I’d imagined to accept the way my face has aged. My photo façade doesn’t show my real scars—from surgery, disappointments, dreams not realized, the loss of loved ones. But my inner scars will always be there.
My photo facade may not show my real scars but my inner scars will always be there.
Occasionally, when I’m dressing up for a special night out, I’ll uncap “Fresh Raspberry,” the lipstick that promises to give me a “flawless” look. I watch my image in the mirror as I press my lips together to smooth it out. Yet it’s my mother I see, trying to color within the lines.
In the restaurant, I watch other women whip out their make-up after dessert and publicly restore their powder and paint, a habit I’ve always found distasteful. I leave my lip impression behind, like an emoji, on a stained water glass, never bothering to reapply. I may have entered with flawless lips, but I leave baring my skin and my soul.
Most of the time, standing in front of a classroom to teach, meeting my daughter for lunch, or rushing to the gym, off I go au naturel. In person, I’m the real me in a world dotted with doctored images. When someone greets me hello and remarks, “You’re looking great!” I can always respond, “It’s genetics.”
Candy Schulman is an award-winning writer whose essays, articles, and humor pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, Next Avenue, New York Magazine, Glamour, Rumpus Funny Women, Parenting, and elsewhere including anthologies.