The photos keep coming. How many? No one can quantify it. One reliable source placed the number at 1,500 within 48 hours of my first Facebook post and said it’s clearly in the thousands by now. The notifications keep coming, tag after tag after tag. People who don’t know me, who don’t know the source of the challenge, are taking photos of themselves and posting them on Facebook. The photos carry the often-derided, OED word-of-2013, selfie. But the selfie part was never meant to be mandatory. The only thing I asked people to do was share photos of themselves without make-up — in solidarity with Kim Novak.
On Saturday, I woke up to a selfie of a writer friend in Minnesota, taken just after his heart attack. He’s grinning. On a gurney, oxygen tube attached. That’s how I learned he had a heart attack. Also, that he’s okay.
How did this start? I credit the coldest, rainiest Mardi Gras day that I have seen in my decade-plus of Mardi Gras attendance. My husband and I jumped up like children on Christmas; our favorite parade, Zulu, rolls at 8 a.m. and the early bird gets the golden coconut. We arrayed ourselves in makeshift costumes from our dress-up box. (I think every household in New Orleans has a dress-up box.) We had aspirations to do something clever this year; I wanted my husband to be Gru from Despicable Me and planned to transform our toddler into a minion. Instead, we just threw together pieces of old costumes in new combinations — a tutu, a thrift shop hat, my “Neutral Side” T-shirt. I troweled on make-up, glued on green fake eyelashes. (Again, possibly a staple in every New Orleans household.) “You so pretty,” I cooed in the mirror, words I planned to say later that day to the Mardi Gras Indians that parade beneath the interstate.
Except it was raining, barely 40 degrees, and our daughter had awakened with a terrible sniffle. No Mardi Gras for us. We didn’t even leave the house. And opting out of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is like being Jewish on Christmas. The Chinese restaurant near us was open, but nothing else. We watched Frozen. We tried to teach our daughter how to play Trouble. Our night owl kid was asleep by 6:30 and didn’t wake up for another twelve hours.
Left with an unexpected windfall of time, I decided to catch up on the world at large. The Oscars were two days behind us at this point and I had experienced it entirely through social media. I found an interesting piece on Kim Novak, whose appearance at the Oscars had shocked people. I looked at her photo and thought, “Well, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
I am 55. I feel bad about my neck, which surprises me. Not because I am beyond vanity, but because when Nora Ephron first wrote about her neck, in a 2003 Vogue article, I was sure it would never happen to me. My neck, one of my best points — wow, that is the saddest group of words ever written — looked pretty good at the time. But that’s been my primary experience with all things about aging: denial via failure of imagination. These are my years of magical thinking. I sing “Defying Gravity” more often than Adele Dazeem ever did.
I feel bad about my neck, although I like to claim I have body pro-morphia, a pride in my appearance that’s out of line with reality. Photographs always bring me up short. The Sunday before Mardi Gras, I had been stuck on a plane in a mechanical delay when a friend texted me a photo of me taken for United Airlines Rhapsody magazine. I realized I was terrified — terrified — to click through and see the portrait, shot by a professional photographer under ideal circumstances.
I am generally unhappy with all photographs of myself these days. I look older, fatter, messier than I am in my head. When I pick up my iPad or iPhone, the reflection I see in those devices makes me shudder. When I Skype with my daughter, I find myself trying to arrange my features and control the lighting so I look okay. My daughter’s young enough not to realize that I’m old. But she will. Very soon.
Yes, beauty isn’t exactly my stock in trade and I am only a semi-public person. I am ridiculous. So all I could think was, God love you, Kim Novak. We criticize women for aging. We criticize women for not aging. We criticize women’s bodies. We criticize women for bad plastic surgery.
You know who doesn’t get criticized? People who look great and pretend they’ve never had surgery. Come on, someone must be getting terrific results or no one would do this. I wish that every person who walks a red carpet was annotated or wore a label, detailing exactly how much work they’ve had done. Not to shame them, quite the opposite. We need to stop lying about how people age. We need to own our Botox, our fillers, our nose jobs, our liposuction. Remember that crazy alibi in Legally Blonde, when the fitness guru accused of murder was getting liposuction and would rather go to jail than admit it? That happens in real life. Not the alibi, but the lipo.
So I took a photograph of myself and stuck it up on Facebook where, at the time, I had fewer than 2,500 friends, just over 14,000 likes on my author page. I also put it on Twitter, where I had fewer than 1,000 followers. For context, a truly popular novelist such as Jennifer Weiner has almost 85,000 Twitter followers; the Facebook author page for Michael Connelly has 217,000-plus likes.
A week later, the photos are still coming. Inevitably, as with any meme, there were some misunderstandings. Some people thought I challenged only writers to do this, but it was open to everyone, men and women. Some thought it was about the very concept of selfies, but I cared only that the photos be raw. Not everyone understood that I was Team Novak all the way.
Those who didn’t know the context of the challenge often told those who posted: Oh, but you’re beautiful. The point isn’t that I look good without make-up, countered Jamie Mason, a novelist I had just met four days earlier. The point is this is what I look like. Jamie’s photos included the red burn marks from a laser treatment gone wrong. Talk about raw.
One woman photographed herself from below, the least flattering angle, straight from the shower. Women known for their elaborate make-up rituals allowed us to see their bare faces. My friend Lauren Milne Henderson, who writes under the name of Rebecca Chance, met the challenge full-on, but decided her literary alter ego would opt for sunglasses and turban.
I must have looked at hundreds of photos of the past week. (I tried to “like” everyone posted, but it soon became clear that I would have to be on Facebook 24/7.) With each one, the faces became more beautiful to me. My eye was changing. My aesthetics were changing. When you look at hundreds and hundreds of bare faces, without the benefit of Photoshop or professional lighting, bare faces start to look pretty good. I found the photos immensely cheering as I headed back out on book tour the day after Mardi Gras. I’ve had the experience on book tour of being called out for not looking like my author photo. I don’t. It was taken in the fall of 2006, for one thing, when I was almost 20 pounds heavier. Those pounds were kind to my face. As was the professional make-up, professional hair, professional photographer.
We are cruel to people in public life. I have some reservations about Alec Baldwin’s recent essay in New York magazine and I am far from immune from the impulse to snark about famous people. But my husband, who knows a thing or two about being mis-characterized in the media, says that we should gossip about the famous the way we do about our friends: behind their backs. Which means not calling out celebrities on social media. Recently, I quoted a line from Kathy Griffin that I’ve always loved: I talk behind people’s backs. It’s called manners. Only — she doesn’t. If we take our comments to social media (or our stand-up comedy acts), we’re having it both ways, talking behind people’s backs and hoping it gets back to them. It’s the fake-whisper of the mean girl, Amber Von Tussle calling out Tracy Turnblad for being a slut. We don’t care if we’re overheard. We want to be overheard. It’s just another variant of Internet troll behavior.
Here’s the part of the story I didn’t tell, the reason that Kim Novak’s experience resonated with me. As Novak later explained, she put herself in the hands of a plastic surgeon and it went awry. Who does that, some people scoffed? I sort of did. I regularly see an esthetician for microdermabrasion facials. (My truth-in-packaging label would also include regular visits to a colorist and a personal trainer.) During a hectic time several weeks ago, we arranged to meet at a different location, a surgical center where she works part-time. I assumed it was for my usual facial, but she had signed me up for a laser treatment. A medical procedure. With someone I trust, but still — a medical procedure ON MY FACE WITH A LASER ABOUT WHICH I HAD DONE ZERO RESEARCH.
I said, sure.
And it was fine. But what if it hadn’t been? What if, like Jamie, I had ended up with second-degree burns? Perhaps I could tell people I had been in an actual fire.That would generate sympathy and kindness, right? Wrong. Twenty-five years ago, I had the experience of falling off my bike and landing on my face. My job required me to be in public before I healed. I had broken teeth, two black eyes and stitches above my upper lip. I looked like a battered wife. A man in a restaurant fake-retched when he saw me and his companion said, in that mean-girl stage whisper, that it was inconsiderate of me to ruin people’s appetites.
People. It’s the only real epithet in my household.
The other night, in a Houston hotel room, shockingly well-rested after two days on the road, I had time to put on make-up, style my hair. I donned a dress purchased to celebrate an embarrassment of good news, then took another selfie to share with a small circle of friends who are good sports about my desire to share photos of new clothes. I looked pretty. Part of me wants to post it here.
That part of me is wrong. Human, but wrong. Besides, if there’s anything scarier than posting a photo of yourself in which you know you look bad, it’s posting one in which you think you look good. People.