Hell’s Kitchen, summer 1981, New York City. Just a few steps away from my apartment simmered Tar Beach. I roasted in the sweltering humidity, slathered in a concoction of baby oil and iodine for a deep, rich tan to look good for Fire Island. I might as well have been marinating myself as spit-roasted meat for KFC: Kentucky Fried Cannibals.
I loved the beach, pool, and tanning beds, convenient solar coffins to bake in a radioactive, lavender glow. Burning quickly, fair-skinned and green-eyed, I was a textbook candidate for future trouble.
In 2016, I saw a dermatologist to remove a plethora of moles that looked like constellations. What are the crab stars called? Oh yeah, Cancer. The doctor fixated on a growth under my eye: flesh-colored, the circumference of a pencil eraser, round and flat. When he said “Uh-oh,” I knew I was in trouble. Yep, melanoma, a serious skin cancer that can spread to other organs.
Within three months, I had a hole the size of a quarter under my eye. A week later, a lymphadenectomy removed infected lymph glands, giving me a zipper-neck on my left side. Following that scare, two aliens emerged: hideous, cancerous bulges on a hand and my chest. They were removed through Mohs surgery, a progressive procedure requiring wide and deep cutting. During the surgery on my hand, I looked at the gouge. When I moved my fingers, I saw my tendons pull, just like Ahnold in Terminator 2, when he sliced and peeled his forearm to uncover his robotic skeleton.
Last summer, I had my face burned off. This Blue Light Special had nothing to do with a K-Mart sale. A nurse sandpapered my face with a dry loofah sponge, put goop on my face, then sat me in front of a blue light for 16 minutes. Within two days, my face looked like I had smeared moldy oatmeal and mozzarella cheese on top of cherry jam. When I went to work, my boss stepped back and cried, “Oh my God! What happened to you?” I stayed home.
Am I just my face?
Are all of us just our faces?
Of course, the answer is no. We are much more than our faces. Historical records reveal The Elephant Man was intelligent and sensitive, but yikes! Our faces are what we present to the world, and from birth, the world tells us if it approves or disapproves. And there it is: beauty.
Leave it to the ancient Greeks to devise a formula of beauty’s perfection. Called Phi, the golden ratio of beauty—1.618:1—measures the symmetry of a subject’s face. Their athletic gods and gorgeous goddesses were mathematically sculpted to physical perfection.
Modern, computerized algorithms confirm the calculations of these creators of Western ideals of beauty, opening a new Pandora’s box: facial recognition. The ability to identify a person via a picture could be a boon to crime fighters or Big Brother. Someday, we won’t need a license or passport. Click. “Mr. Kitzman, step out of the car.”
Though ideals of beauty change weekly it seems, search the web to find consistent confirmation that beautiful people are generally happier, healthier, and wealthier. What does that mean for the rest of us?
You may have had plastic surgery, one of 17.7 million in 2018 just in the U.S., or added your dollars to the global beauty industry, worth almost $550 billion. In this time of the coronavirus and face masks, showing off that 50-buck lipstick or $10k rhinoplasty could become risky.
Sometimes neither makeup nor surgery matters. We all know a beautiful person, conceited and cruel, who becomes ugly, and a homely person, kind and funny, who becomes beautiful.
We can blame parents. Genetics plays its cruel, random role, as does addiction and disease. I knew a handsome man who succumbed to meth; he was barely recognizable. Ravaging faces, AIDS forced gay men to reevaluate their most valued currency: again, beauty.
To a degree, that’s all we had to barter: our face, body, and costume on display where gay men gathered. When I was young, the Castro Street clone was de-rigueur. I desperately tried to conform but never pulled it off. I vividly remember the anguish I felt at not being hot enough, which in retrospect seems like such a waste. Because I was good enough, smart enough, and doggonit, people liked me! (Thank you, Stuart Smalley.)
Figuring out what face we want to present to the world is a lifelong pursuit. We bravely, awkwardly experiment in our youth. In the 90s, I was an human resource director for a call center. The goth movement was in full swing, or full puncture. Tongue studs, nose rings, and heavy gauge eyebrow rings were the accoutrement of rebellion and self-expression.
I met sweet, smart, young men and women who were certainly more than their faces. The business owners didn’t care about their metallic jewelry because these employees worked on phones using their “smiling voices.”
I live during another cultural awakening. Today’s youth have added the Q to LGBTQ, declaring a smorgasbord of gender identity and sexual preference. Their achievement goes way beyond the faces of epicene tomboys and pretty boys, furthering awareness of the infinite variety of humanity.
Also in our community, drag queens have decided with gusto for decades what faces they present to the world. I’ve never done drag; I had the cheekbones, but never the balls.
I love people-watching at airports, stores, on the street, at the theatre or work. I pass many judgments—we all do; yes, you do!—and they of me: race, religion, sexuality, gender, attractiveness, to name a few. Getting beyond judgments during rare interactions, I’ve been amazed at what individuals unveil: humor, tragedy, astonishing achievements or talents, their humanity.
Four out of five senses reside above the neck and provide us with feedback and expression of and in our world. Yet, we never see ourselves in the world. It would be awkward walking around with a mirror dangling from a hat, not to mention dangerous, but that’s what we do with our phones, selfies substituting mirrors for verification that, yes, I exist in the world.
My verification comes at bedtime, lying next to my partner, Neil. I’m amazed this beautiful man lies next to me. Beauty in the eyes of this beholder declares I’m a lucky, lucky man. And I’m lucky, after my face burn and peeling off sheets of solar keratoses, those brown, scaly bumps from sun damage (you know, old-age spots), to have a smooth, pink face. It’ll do quite nicely.
With all the billions who have lived before us, no one has ever had your face. No one has it today; no one ever will in the future. Celebrate it; take care of it. And stay out of the sun!