Guest post by Dr Jane Frances, Policy Adviser in Education, Changing Faces
How many faces will you see this week? On the bus, out and about, in school or in work, in the park, at the gym, queuing in the supermarket, not to mention on television, in film and magazines, on Facebook, in selfies and other smartphone photos… and every one of them different! Even identical twins (I know this from my teaching days) have enough small differences to tell them apart.
So how do you look at all these faces? Just a quick barely-noticing glance? Judging this face as good-looking, that face not so much…? Or what about an interested, appreciative gaze? Like an artist, pondering bone structure, skin texture, light and shade, brightness of eye, quality of energy and animation…? (Oh, and there’s that altogether different kind of looking where you spot someone you know and say “Hi”.)
Across our society the judgemental kind of looking seems prevalent and perhaps this goes with an underlying pressure towards looking good that makes most of us anxious about how we look, or take care over how we look, or both. Is there something going on deep down in our culture, or perhaps in our human psychology, that tends to draw us in this direction, to make looking good matter so much? Why do UK women spend £1.06 billion on facial skincare, while UK sales of men’s facial skincare are not far behind at £96 million?
On top of this, air-brushing is becoming normalised as a built-in process on the latest smartphones, so that every last freckle is smoothed away every time. But if you think tweaking photos is a new thing you’d be wrong. Even the earliest portrait photographers were at it with specialised pens and inks to modify negatives, and In Your Face includes examples of their tools and their finished work. Airbrushing was famously – or infamously – used by Joseph Stalin’s lackeys to remove colleagues from group pictures after they’d fallen from grace and been shot or exiled, to create a misleading image as if they had never existed.
These images are taken from an album displayed in In Your Face; it dates from around 1910 and would have been used by a photography studio to advertise their retouching services.
So is this judgemental kind of looking – that always seems to ask how beautiful, or not, a face is – a good thing? Does having the face that you have, looking the way that you look, have to be ‘good’ or not so good? Who decides what’s good-looking, or not, in the first place? Perhaps my favourite part of the In Your Face exhibition is Esther Honig’s sequence of images which show the same image sent to many different parts of the world to be air-brushed and modified to make it very beautiful.
Journalist Esther Honig sent an image of her face to 50 photo editors with the instruction ‘make me beautiful’ – these are some of the results.
There is so much more in your face than whether or not it’s a good-looking face. The In Your Face exhibition shows brilliantly just how much there is in your face – in every face, and how much we as humans are ‘hard-wired’ to see faces and engage with what we see. So by developing our capacity to see and notice more, and by judging less, I think we can enrich our lives. For this it helps to have plenty of options available around all the kinds of things that are there to be noticed every time you see a face. Faces are alive with so many different qualities of tone and texture, energy and emotion, engagement and containment. A face might look dark, calm, thoughtful, or it might look strong, still, aware, or unusual, alert, friendly, or fair, mobile, amused. The more you get into noticing faces, the more there is, in each face to notice. These could seem like the qualities that are more usually ascribed to a ‘person’ than to their face. But faces are a major – perhaps the major – vehicle through which we connect with each other as people.
This raises interesting questions when someone’s face is rather unusual. Some people go in for piercings or tattoos although these are nowhere near as unusual as they used to be. More unusual perhaps would be a face with a birthmark or a skin-graft, or a face with an eye-patch. A face might be affected by paralysis so that it is not held at rest or animated in ways that we are more used to seeing. Or the skin might have an unusual texture, or there might be much less symmetry between the left and right sides of a face (although all our faces are less symmetrical than we tend to think). An unusual face can surprise or unsettle us for a few moments. We might find ourselves tending to stare. There’s no need – after all, an unusual face is a face and each of us has the face that we have.
Hence the Face Equality campaign, through which Changing Faces aims to move us all on from judging people on the way they look. That brief but judgemental way of looking at faces can quickly lead to unfairness and exclusion. Implicit attitude research has shown that nine out of ten people find it hard to see what’s really there in your face if your face looks unusual. So most people looking at an image of a face with a scar or a birthmark, find it hard to see a cheerful face or a friendly expression – even if that face is smiling! Getting to know what’s in your face can change the way you see yourself and others. Which is why we at Changing Faces want everyone to go and see In Your Face if you possibly can. I think it will change the way you see all faces, including unusual faces.
Occasionally it may take us a moment or two to move beyond our surprise, and then we will surely see that this person’s face is an interesting face with its own unique qualities just as every other face has its own unique qualities. So in among all our noticing, an unusual face could be warm and mobile with a different coloured area on the forehead. Another day, we might notice an unusual face that’s fair, lively, cheerful, with a birthmark. This face looks round and very calm, whereas this face is dark, thoughtful, composed, with a scar. Another face might have an asymmetrical bone-structure and be smooth-skinned with lively eyes. Or calm and smiley.
There’s so much in your face, and in each face you see. You’ll miss so much if you settle for a quick judgement instead of actually noticing the things that give each of us our own unique face. How do you look?