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In the Flesh: Personal Indulgences No. 11

The old French saying is all too true: After a certain age, a woman must choose between her face and her figure.

The added flesh that diabolically accretes to one’s middle with the passing years will keep the face attractively plumped out. Cut calories to preserve the figure and the face grows pinched and wrinkled. As with so many issues in life, you can’t win, but you can choose.

I chose the figure without hesitation, having a well proportioned willowy one, with the great legs I inherited from my mother. My face, on the other hand, is ordinary except for my green eyes, which are very nice, if I say so myself.

Why such a fuss? you may ask. Do purely physical appearances, over which one has minimal control, really matter? You bet they do. They count tremendously. If you doubt it, just study romance (in fact or fiction) or, if you’ll indulge my fatal attraction to the field, dancing. A dance fan–like me, like you, perhaps–can hardly ignore a performer’s looks.

A student of mine in a dance-writing course asked one day if, in a critic’s evaluation of a performer, bodies counted. Yes, Virginia, bodies–and faces, too–count. They’re not everything, mind you. Galina Ulanova, for instance, the unforgettable mid-twentieth century star of the Bolshoi was built like a peasant, yet her soul shone through. The face doesn’t need to be beautiful–Ulanova’s matched her body–but it surely benefits from certain qualities that go into making what we call a good “stage face”: large, widely spaced eyes, a mobile and expressive mouth, a general look of openness to experience. Maria Tallchief, Martha Graham, Patricia McBride–all had glorious stage faces. And a dancer with a tight, miserly-featured face is often–not always, but often–emotionally unable or unwilling to offer the viewer those attributes that go way beyond technique.

All this applies as well to the field of pedestrians. Just as, philosophy is continually telling us, it is important to be able to put a name to something, it is essential to see how a thing or a person looks and recognize our reaction. We respond quickly and deeply to a person’s appearance and draw from it many conclusions–some of them true; a few surprisingly false, as it turns out; others that will acquire a complex subtlety should we develop an acquaintance with the person. But, admit it, that first look produces a profound, often long-lasting, response. This is so obvious, I think we can leave it at that and close the book.
© 2008 Tobi Tobias


  1. Martha Ullman West says

    Oh nice. Moi-même I seem to have chosen the face over the figure, but not consciously. Genetics do play a part and at least, sigh, I’m not as rotund as my mother was. [Sent October 21, 2008. — Ed.]

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