Own Your Face

“Most of us don’t own our faces… And sure the usual suspects are to blame; Hollywood, advertisers, our peers, our lovers. But you know who’s most to blame?… Us. The biggest obstacle to us owning our faces is us disowning them.”

~ Robert Hoge

This article discusses the Ted talk Own Your Face by Robert Hoge.

Robert Hoge is a man who’s mother rejected him at the moment of his birth. He entered the world with massive facial deformities resulting from a fist-sized prenatal tumor that formed on his forehead in the womb. For one week his mother refused to see him, and decided when she did that she simply couldn’t connect with a face like his. She went home and remained there for six weeks while baby Robert stayed in the hospital. It was only after his siblings voted for it, that Robert was brought home.

When he was four he underwent a serious and life-threatening operation to give him a more normal-looking face. During his childhood he’d undergo hundreds of other, more minor, surgeries.

An extraordinary strength was forged in Robert from bearing the mental and physical toll of repeated surgeries. But the surgeon’s knife was a petty minion compared to the demon of his peers’ judgments. To even lightly ponder the cruelty of children growing up, when it comes to name-calling and fault-finding, is to imagine the depths of suffering that Robert Hoge endured.

“Those were the things that stopped me being comfortable with my face. Those were the things that stopped me from owning my face.”

The scars ran deep, deeper than can probably ever be fully masked. I could see them surface as Robert spoke. His voice shook and his eyes found the floor particularly during the most vulnerable moments of his speech. It was those moments of pure human vulnerability that tied my heart to his story. It was those moments that made it powerful.

Ten years later, when Robert was 14, he was presented with another chance to undergo an operation that might further correct his face. Since it involved moving his eyes, the procedure held a large risk of his going blind. During a sober discussion of these risks, his brother asked, “What’s the point of looking pretty if you can’t even see yourself.”

In that moment Robert Hoge owned his face.

“We tend to talk about ideal beauty like it’s Mount Everest, and everyone needs to climb it. That’s actually wrong. Ideal beauty is much better when we think about it like a million different points on the map. Sure if you want to go to Mount Everest, go. Walk up to base camp, wave at the summit. But then choose your own point on the map and walk toward it.”

This metaphor is brilliantly elegant. It not only clearly expresses the entire theme of his speech, it also neatly describes the futile struggle of many people, and gives a wonderful solution. Many people don’t own their faces because they are crammed on the slopes of Mount Everest, clawing toward a summit that’s beyond reach.

Meanwhile they could pick another point on the map, adopt another ideal of beauty, and strive toward that. Media exalts its own version of Beauty and ceaselessly bludgeons people with it, especially women. If those people could only challenge that manufactured assumption of Beauty, they might discover a uniquely majestic pinnacle of pulchritude. One with frizzy hair, inverted nipples, large hands, bushy eyebrows, imbalanced labia, a crooked nose, wide hips, a scarred lip, thick thighs, or hairy forearms. All these plain features I’ve found, and savored, in lovers. All these; landmarks on the map of Beauty.

“We all make choices everyday. To shave. To wear make-up, and if so how much. To wear piercings. To bleach our lip-hair. All of those kinds of things. And those sorts of things give us entry into the tribes we’d like to enter. Choosing to dress like a goth is exactly the same choice as looking like a bearded hipster. It’s just a different decision.”

Those who make the choice to climb Mount Everest are deciding to appeal for entry into that tribe which values the standard form of beauty. To those who make that choice, I say great. But for those who are sick of the tedious trek, let me offer the advice of Robert Hoge, “Own your face.”

“You can own your face. Owning is choosing. Choose to accept your face. Choose to appreciate your face. Don’t look away from the mirror so quickly. Understand all the love, and the life, and the pain, that is part of your face. That is the art of your face.”

My path to owning my face paralleled Hoge’s slightly in regards to genetic abnormalities. I too endured the physical pain of cosmetic surgery in my youth. I too endured the emotional anguish of social ridicule. By the time prosthetic teeth gave me a decent smile, my hairline started noticeably receding.

In the end I compensated for what I always considered a sub-handsome face with qualities of character. I excelled in confidence, humor and wit, over beauty. And I did alright.

But this unaddressed insecurity festered. It began bleeding through those qualities, effectively corrupting their benefits. Then I watched Robert Hoge’s talk. And the moment I connected with his story is the moment I owned my face.

I’m not so trivial that an internet video can alone inspire such a personal shift. My attitude about myself was already geared for it. I had the self-possession to navigate toward my own ideal, and the confidence to forge the path. This talk just revealed a kink in my worldview.

I was delusionally aspiring for James Dean hair, a George Clooney smile, and a Brad Pitt physique. And I was suffocating in the altitude of those delusions. But this talk helped me to let go of that fixation, and begin a march toward my own pride of appearance.

Robert Hoge’s story of struggling through a lifetime of severe facial deformities presents a hearteningly ironic insight into the nature of Beauty and self-acceptance. Here’s a man who cannot possibly aspire to leap across the chasm that separates him from Maxim’s Sexiest man alive. His confronting ugliness forced him to consider alternatives to the concept of Beauty, lest he resign to the insane fate of chasing it or else assume a Quasimodo-esque shame.

I’ve chosen to adopt the ‘million-pointed map’ metaphor for Beauty as a personal element of style. The attainable peak I now hike towards is pure, substantive health. I trust that proper diet and exercise, cleanliness and hygiene, will nurture a healthy body. That will naturally depict my best face. And that is the face I hereby vow to own henceforth.

Thank you for reading.


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