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?