My grandmother was right. My mother, too. And guess what: it's not just me and my people. Your grandmother and your mother? Yep, they were right, too.
For years I scoffed at what my mother and grandmother said: that if I kept on making that face, it would freeze and then what would I do? How would I like to always look like that, making that ugly face?
At the time, I just figured this was just another one of their absurd attempts to control every single thing about me, not just what I did or said, but even my expressions. I rejected it out of hand. But today, all at once, 45 years later, it hit.
God damn it, they were right all along.
From the moment I noticed today that a person I was talking to had such a scrunchy, angry look on her face completely out of step with the words coming out of her mouth, from that moment on, I was transfixed. I kept watching, for the duration of our interaction, waiting to see if she would relax her expression. Most likely, I thought to myself, listening but also completely fascinated, most likely she needs a stronger prescription. Surely stronger lenses on those glasses would help relieve that intensely furrowed brow, that super-squinty look. But the longer I watched, the more I realized it was more than just her vision. It wasn't just her brow or her eyes; her whole face was squashed. Even her mouth was involved. For an hour, she looked angry, confused, and/or disgusted; her face was never neutral, certainly never smiling. It was completely unsettling. Her face didn't match at all what she was saying with her words.
Her face was, in fact, frozen.
Damn it. They were right.
While transfixed I briefly entertained the thought that I should tell her. How would I phrase it exactly, so that I got through to her kindly without hurting her feelings or leaving her mortified or embarrassed? Could I say, gently, hey, are your eyes OK? Seems like you're having a lot of trouble seeing right now... Or something like that. I imagined I might be doing her a favor. She probably has no idea how totally offputting that face she makes is. Really, it's not doing her any favors at all.
In the end, I didn't say anything. I couldn't foresee a good outcome, so I let it go.
But the experience changed me. It reminded me of a conversation last week at a dinner party with someone I'd just met. We were talking about resolutions naturally, since that is such a common topic this time of year. I love talking about resolutions, especially with near-strangers, since it's such a discrete little window into people's values. It's such a tidy short-cut to intimacy, so much better than the usual small talk about work or hobbies. You get to tap right into what makes that person tick. Anyway, I was probably bla-bla-bla about my whole elaborate process of setting annual goals and then asked this new acquaintance about her own, whether she was a resolution-maker. She said No in her quiet way, and then retracted, saying that she had, in fact, had just one resolution the year before.
Her one resolution had been to have a more pleasant face. At which, of course, I leaned in. What could this possibly mean? She explained that mainly she wanted to smile more. She'd caught sight of herself, glimpsed her reflection unawares one day, and been shocked by what she saw. So stern. So foreboding. So not the impression she wanted to give. Hence the resolution.
Ouch. She had seen that she was frozen.
So it's really real, this bullshit statement my foremothers loved to repeat. Even if they didn't realize its full truth (I still maintain they *were* in fact total control freaks), it IS absolutely true that the expressions we commonly have on our faces tend to take up permanent residence. The grooves we make by repeatedly assuming a certain look grow deep, and our musculature takes us back there to those well-worn grooves whether we want that expression or not. Even if I'm not even remotely mad, for example, my face at rest might take on an angry expression because it's had just so much practice.
Our faces definitely freeze, so the least we can do is try to ensure they freeze in a pleasant expression, something vaguely warm and inviting, a face you want to get closer to, engage with.
So here's another possible resolution for my 2012 Chart -- to put on a happy face. Most of the time, I really AM happy inside, but I'm not sure my face is showing it. Maybe I'll devote more attention this year to strengthening those little muscles that turn up the corners of my mouth, see if I can reverse any negative grooves before it gets too late. Before I really and truly am frozen and some poor soul spends an hour watching my not-angry angry face and considering an intervention.