(body talk 4)

sidelong

(continued from here first, here, and here.)

But usually, I have no idea what my body is saying to me. This fact is alarming by itself but the converse is true, as well: I’m oblivious to what it’s telling about me.

They say that flirts fiddle with their hair and liars’ hearts beat faster. Some claim they can feel your pulse, gaze into your eyes, or read the lines on your palm to find out about you. Researchers say that it takes mere seconds for us to interpret other peoples’ body language and make judgments about them but we don’t know it’s happening; it’s all subconscious, our bodies playing charades with one another, lipless conversations to which I’m not fully privy because I don’t speak body language.

I’ve been told my face is hard to read. Strangers, always male, have told me to smile on several occasions. I’m walking across a busy intersection when a man leans out his car window and yells, “Smile, honey!” I check my shameful knee-jerk urge to give him what he wants, and then I resist the burning desire to give him the finger instead. Nothing left to do but pin my eyes on the curb ahead and keep walking.“You’d be much prettier if you’d smile!” He yells. As if being pretty ought to be my first priority. As if your face is a pile of dog shit on the sidewalk and it’s his right to demand that something be done about it.

But I digress. Sometimes, even my husband says he can’t read my face, says that I look mad when I’m sad or when I’m just thinking. When this happens I feel mildly paranoid: my face has misbehaved. It is saying rude things behind my back (so to speak, since that is physically impossible). I want to run to the mirror and see what he’s talking about.

In the mirror, I observe telling details about who I might be. In one glance you could take in many truths, things I could never explain with words, but I’ll try. I have sharp cheekbones, arched eyebrows, a high forehead and big, strong teeth, incisors that jut out just a bit. My hands are small, sturdy, and expressive. I keep my fingernails cut very short. I’m 5’1” with short dark hair threaded with silver because I don’t dye now but I won’t say never. My eyes are two slightly different shades of muddy greenish brown and when we talk, I look right at you in a direct manner that makes some people uncomfortable. I have a mole at the base of my neck, just above my collarbone. I walk fast, with long strides and my hands in my pockets. I don’t smile much but when I do, the skin near my eyes crinkles up. I am neither fat nor thin but rather curvy and my legs are strong.

I look at this list and see that it is basically meaningless. These details might convey a vague impression but they don’t get under my surface; they don’t even begin to cover the surface. As a writer, I have always hidden my face.  I’ve felt that my face was not the ideal envoy of my thoughts and that my outside did not fit my inside in some way, although even as I write that I don’t know what I mean. As a writer, I try to use descriptions that speak volumes, but rarely do these details add up to tangible understanding. Merely writing about what I think I look like isn’t ultimately useful because bodies speak in an implicit, visceral, chemical language that can’t be delineated on a page.

It takes two to make an impression– the seer and the seen. What I look like depends upon whom is looking at me. I’ve been short for so long it no longer feels like a salient detail. I’m exactly one foot shorter than my husband but he doesn’t notice anymore and, to my children, I’m still giant. When I lived in Shanghai for three months in 1989, I never felt small, although I did feel like a bit of a freak, especially while riding my bicycle to work at my mother’s painted silk garment factory.  Back then, it was still unusual to see foreigners in Shanghai or women riding bicycles so almost every day, drivers and bicyclists would slam on their brakes and stare. “Wàiguó rén! Wàiguó rén!” They’d yell. (Foreigner!  Foreigner!) More than once a poor, slack-jawed bicyclist would find himself completely incapacitated with shock and would plough his bicycle right into mine.

So much depends on the looker. Some see short hair and fingernails and a lack of a smile as tough or masculine while others read my face and curves and laugh lines as soft or “all woman” but if all you can see is my breasts, you’ll probably have a different impression than if you focused on my forehead. Some of my friends think I’m young and beautiful but others can only see my wrinkles or the zit on my chin; others wouldn’t notice if I shaved off my eyebrows. When my mother looks at me, I suspect she sees herself.

Are my two-toned eyes interesting or imbalanced? Is this a witch’s mole or a beauty mark? Am I being direct or staring you down?  This discrepancy is probably why we feel and act differently around different people.

What does your body say about you?

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About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.

17 comments

  1. What an intriguing post. My mind is thinking a myriad of things at once. Mostly relating to photography and self. Perceptions are so fascinating. I hate being photographed because I think that it will never be me that turns up in the end. Yet, I love photographing people because I think I can find them, a bit of them in a photograph I make. But it is not always a quick process. Gosh, I wish we lived closer – that would be a fun collaboration…
    How we perceive people probably speaks volumes about how we perceive ourselves. You’ve got me thinking…

    • That would be a fun collaboration, Karen–I always felt that photos of me looked exactly like that– like I hadn’t turned up, or hadn’t risen to the surface somehow. Lately I’ve resorted to taking pictures of myself, which seem to turn out better (although always taken at arm’s length and when I stop to think about it, it does seem like a weird thing to do). Your gravatar is a wonderful shot. (Do you think people who see the best in themselves tend to extend that optimism to others? Hmmm… There’s something to that, I think. And does it extend to photography? Interesting thought.)

  2. My face seems to default to “frown” as well. Is that wrong? Who cares! Except I kinda do, especially when people say I ought to smile…

  3. I have a poker face, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone direct me to smile. Always a man, always in some drive-by situation.

    Brilliant post, Anna, but I don’t have an answer to your question. I just don’t know anymore.

  4. Hmmm. Our faces, our bodies are but shells wrapped around the nut inside. I don’t mean the crazy nut, I mean the prize nut, the almond, the pine nut. And it is true that I think we respond differently toward different people, but I think the nearly imperceptible nuances of non verbal communication play a huge role in that.

    What does my body say about me? I’m well fed!

  5. I used to get the “why don’t you smile” thing too when I was younger. Apparently people who meet me now realize there’s no chance of my compliance, so they don’t even bother to ask.

  6. This made me smile so much! 🙂 Especially that whole part about the ‘eye of the beholder’. The funny thing is people always tell me I look serene… In truth, I’m extremely high strung and stressed out most of the time. And I’ve never understood why my body, or at least my face, makes a liar out of me. A happy lie, nonetheless…

    • Maybe your body knows something you don’t– that it’s all going to be okay. I love the idea that one’s face can make one a liar. I might have to use it as a segue to the next part, Lies My Body Tells Me.

  7. macdougalstreetbaby

    I remember a girl in elementary school who towered above the rest of us. She was a little awkward, too, and because of it (or not) she slouched, which made her look even more strange. I often think about these kind of things. How our bodies create a story and how we, in turn, respond. I like that you look in people’s eyes when you talk to them. I must confess, I have difficulty in this area. I’m almost always the first to look away, as if I stare too long, someone may find a way in.

    • Aha! I love that: “someone may find a way in.” Precisely.
      Sometimes I wonder about the term “pay attention.” As if there were some currency (current?) exchanged in a look.
      (I wonder where that girl is now?)

  8. I’m a smiler, a welcomer, a come-on-over-here and let’s chat type. That’s my look, and most of the time that’s also my feeling. I’m the person who will start up a conversation with the people at the table next to me, or in a long line, much to the embarrassment of my children.

    Unfortunately, this also means I put on a smile in stressful situations, and this often serves poorly. I’m either totally inappropriate (is she smiling at her mother’s funeral??!!) or frantically trying to explain that I’m not as thrilled as I look.

  9. aubrey

    It’s astonishing how our self-perception is so dependant on the perceptions of others.

    I believe that a cat was born with an air of permanent disgust. I think I’m that way too. I’m not interested in talking to strangers on the bus, for instance, but I do want them to know how displeased I am that I’m riding the bus, to a rather ugly city, to a job that can get very tedious very quickly. So it always behooves me to take my lessons from The Cat.

    My face says, ‘If you tell me I’m wearing too much lipstick, I’ll cut you.’

  10. This made me laugh. You make me laugh.

    And I agree with you about what is seen is dependent upon who is doing the seeing. My husband and I often see different things when looking at the same person. He’ll make a comment and I sometimes say, “Oh really? I didn’t notice, I was looking at . . . .” And 95.5% of the time we have watched entirely different movies sitting RIGHT NEXT to each other! So funny.

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